"Hollywood's too tough for the Mafia," growls the 75-year-old author down the line from his Long Island home. "There's too much money involved in the movie business," he explains. "Those Hollywood guys aren't scared of the Mafia, they're not scared of the government, they're not scared of anybody." But then Puzo, in a slow-talking, mid-Manhattan accent - which elongates Mafia into Ma-fia - complicates the issue by conceding that "the Mafia don't want to own the cow they're milking. They want somebody else to own the cow. Then they milk it for themselves. Otherwise it's too much trouble."
Throughout our conversation, Puzo makes it quite clear that this unholy alliance between the movies and the Mob is almost as old as Hollywood itself. From Thirties mobster "Bugsy" Siegel's "offer of protection to the movie moguls", through to "the Cleveland syndicate's wartime suppression of [Hollywood] unions", up to "the Genovese gang's current control of porn movies", apparently every Mafia Family wants - or has wanted - to make Hollywood an offer it can't refuse. But this native of New York's Hell's Kitchen and long-time frequenter of the Las Vegas casinos doggedly refuses to admit to any personal knowledge of Mob shenanigans. The wily Don of the Mafia novel plays devil's advocate by insisting that the studio takeover in The Last Don is "complete fiction on my part. That would never happen in real life."
Because, as Puzo repeatedly insists, real-life studio chiefs are more than a match for the hardest of Dons. "It has to do with personal power. You have a great house, you have everything you want: women, jacuzzis, cars, airplanes. So the stakes are very high. You're willing to risk more. I think the Mafia is a little scared of that power. They can't just knock off the head of a studio all the time. It's too big a jump. There would be too much of an uproar. Hollywood, after all, is very well plugged into Washington. A lot of money goes to Washington - especially during elections. So the FBI would take special pains."
Not that Puzo himself is overawed by Hollywood. Indeed, not long ago he told me that he had successively sued two studios for loss of profits on his screenplays for Superman and Earthquake. He is also disturbed by the town's pretentiousness and flashy style; to confirm his distaste he describes a meeting with one of Hollywood's most stylish gangsters. "Whenever I see a guy with panache," he says, "I get scared. Now, Joey Gallo had panache. He wanted me to write his autobiography. I ran like a thief. I told my publisher he would be dead in six months. And he was. I knew he would be killed because he had too much panache. More pasta and less panache is a good saying to remember."
For any follower of real hoodlums in Hollywood, Puzo is a gold mine of good stories: "Ah, Johnny `Don Giovanni' Roselli... Yeah, I met him. He produced B-movies for Warners - ended up in a dumpster in Florida." He does, however, make one specific exception to his intriguing dips into Tinseltown crime. "Sure, Frank Sinatra hung out with Mafia guys; but whether he was really mixed up with them, who knows? Maybe it's because I admire him, I'm prejudiced." Unfortunately for Puzo, though, Sinatra has not returned the compliment. The legendary swinger from Hoboken has now become almost interchangeable in the public mind with The Godfather's singer Johnny Fontane, and for this reason Frank Sinatra gave Puzo a tongue-lashing when they finally met a couple of years ago at the Hollywood restaurant Chasen's. Of the incident, Puzo has said, "The worst thing he called me was a pimp"; and perhaps it was this insult that provokes Puzo, during our transatlantic conversation, to drop in a story that shows Sinatra in a less than favourable light.
But like those cunning old Sicilian hoods in his novels, Puzo bides his time. In the midst of spelling out his latest book's overall theme of the assimilation of the Mob into mainstream America - "those old-time Mafia men, who got into Vegas when it started; they never went back to Mafia stuff. Carl Cohen, for instance, one of the nicest guys, ran the Sands' casino..." - he suddenly interrupts himself. "Cohen punched out Sinatra." Why? "Sinatra had just lost his girlfriend. He was drunk and tearing around the hotel breaking everything up. Carl came out and told him to cool down. So Sinatra turns to his bodyguards and screams, `Get him.' But the bodyguards knew who Cohen was. `Not us,' they moaned. So Frank took a swipe - and missed. Carl didn't, though. He punched him out - split Sinatra's lip and knocked the caps off his two front teeth. Later on, I asked Cohen what had happened. And all he would say was, `That was soooo unfortunate.' Such good manners," Puzo proudly recalls. "He didn't want to brag. But he was a certified killer."
With friends like this, it's not surprising that most people believe Puzo is a Mafia "made man". Even Johnny Russell, the Mob-financed film producer, in his first meeting with Puzo insisted, "Admit it, Puzo, you're one of the guys." So how does the writer himself react to this confusion? Is he irritated? "Nah," he says. "I'm amused, because I'm the kind of guy that can't even kill a mouse. The only violent thing I ever did was sue those two movie studios when they didn't pay my profits." But how would all his readers react if they knew that the father of The Godfather hadn't been privy to the inner councils of the Mafia Dons?
"Maybe we shouldn't tell them," decides Mario Puzo.
`The Last Don' is published by William Heinemann at pounds 15.99