Puzo’s novel tells the story of Sicilian immigrant Vito Corleone and the family and “business” he built in New York, including the struggles of his son Michael, who will succeed him as the new “Don.” Paramount Pictures bought the film rights to the novel, and studio head Robert Evans turned to the young Italian-American director Francis Ford Coppola to direct. (Coppola also co-wrote the screenplay, with Puzo.) With Marlon Brando (Don Corleone) and Al Pacino (Michael) leading a stellar cast, “The Godfather” gave a fuller, more authentic and more sympathetic glimpse into the Italian-American experience than had been seen on screen before, even as it framed that glimpse through the lens of organized crime. It also painted an undeniably romantic portrait of the mafioso as a man of contradiction, who was ruthless toward his enemy but devoted to his family and friends above all else. Unlike previous gangster films, “The Godfather” looked at the Mafia from the inside out, instead of taking the perspective of law enforcement or of “regular” society. In this way, “The Godfather” reinvented the gangster movie, just as it would influence all those that came after it. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) was darker and more violent than the first film, but both were box office smashes and multiple Oscar winners. (“The Godfather, Part III,” released 16 years after “Part II,” failed to impress critics or audiences.)
Over the next three decades, Hollywood never lost its fascination with the Mafia. A partial list of related films includes dramas like “The Untouchables” (1987), “Donnie Brasco” (1997) and especially Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), which showed the underside of “The Godfather”‘s romantic vision of Mafia life. Mafiosos also made their way into comedies: “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), “Married to the Mob” (1988), “My Blue Heaven” (1990) and “Analyze This” (1999). From animated films to children’s cartoons, video games to “gangsta”-style hip-hop or rap music, the myth of the Mafia was everywhere, thanks in large part to the enduring legacy of “The Godfather.” On TV, of course, mobsters turned up regularly on crime shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law and Order.” In 1999, however, came the debut of a cable TV show featuring a mafioso like none ever seen before.