The man sits in a large, burgundy colored, leather bound chair, a fat Honduran cigar nestled between his fat fingers. The smoke hangs in the air like an unanswered question, but fortunately for me, Mario is very forthcoming. “I’m not the man I once was,” he tells me. “I was once the biggest draw in video games. I was the top man.”
He stops and brings his cigar to his mouth. A smile cracks his face.
“But I’m still big.”
On every wall in the room are framed magazine covers, promotional posters, news articles, and photographs. All feature the man, the myth, the machine, Mario. His face is plastered all around the room, but there is only one face I am focused on. A childhood idol turned flesh.
Smoke pours out of his mouth as he tells me tales of his humble beginnings, his rise to fame, and how he became the face of Nintendo, a thirty year powerhouse in the video game industry. This rags to riches story is presented in a new book, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan, due to be released the fourth day of August.
“Authorized? No, not by me,” Mario says. “But it’s what happens when you’re famous. Everyone wants to touch your sleeves.” He smiles at me again. “Not that I mind, really. The kids are great. How many paisanos can say they got their mug on bedsheets and candy? It’s amazing.”
Mario was born in Brooklyn, New York, to an Italian immigrant family. He was the second oldest of four children. His eldest brother, Vincenzo, died in Vietnam. His youngest brother, Salvatore, was killed after he was run over by a subway car at age 7. His other brother, Luigi, is also a video game star and lives in East Hampton, Long Island.
Mario sold newspapers as a boy growing up, learning to hustle on the streets of New York. Mario began to apprentice with his father, and eventually took over the family plumbing business when he was just 16.
“My father had arthritis and couldn’t handle the job anymore. Also, there were a lot of crabs and turtles in the sewers, which was more than he could deal with.”
Mario’s brother, Luigi, also worked for the company, and in fact the two have been together ever since, throughout the various video game, television shows, books and movie projects. Mario always made sure his brother was a part of his success, especially after their parents died. Although Luigi ventured out with a few games of his own, he was never more than second man to the larger than life Mario. When I asked if Mario thought it was necessary for Luigi to be part of his franchise, he looked at me and exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“I love him, he’s my brother. That’s not even a question that needs to be answered. It doesn’t matter. He’s the only family I got left.”
When pressed about Luigi not having the same star power, Mario dismissed the idea.
“We was never in competition, my brother and me. I never felt like I had to carry him. He is a giant in his own right, I hope he knows that. He’s got stugats.”
Although Mario and Luigi are still close, the Brooklyn born plumber now enjoys the solitude of the Pacific northwest.
“Washington is a great state,” Mario tells me as he walks me out to the deck on his 17 room villa overlooking rain-kissed trees, a ten year old scotch in his hand. “The view is beautiful. No smog, no traffic, no giant apes. Sure, you can’t get decent salami to save your life, but I like the quiet.”
The quiet and solitude of his rustic home provides a place to relax and reflect when Mario is not busy fighting hordes of bad guys. His first work involved playing the protagonist to the Kong family, one of the biggest players in the early video game industry. His girlfriend, Pauline, also appeared in the game “Donkey Kong” alongside Mario.
Mario’s heavy form sags ever so slightly as he reminisces about Pauline.
“She was a good girl from the neighborhood, really my first love. Things just sort of fell apart after the miscarriage.”
The two still keep in touch from time to time, and have even done a handful of roles together since the break up.
“She looks good. She’s still sharp. I only hope the best for her.”
Mario’s long-term on again, off again relationship is with Peach Toadstool, Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom. It is one of those odd matches that has brought in audiences time and again, a sort of Bogart-Bacall of the pixelated world.
“Peach is a tough broad, and that’s one reason I like her so much. Yeah, she’s played the damsel thing, but she knows how to hold her own.”
Indeed, Peach has developed a lucrative career, with merchandise and starring roles in video games. Still, what Princess doesn’t look for her Prince Charming? When I ask Mario if he thought about marrying to the throne, he laughs.
“Peach has got her thing, I’ve got mine. What we got works, why mess that up?”
I ask if he’s worried whether Peach will find someone else. He laughs.
“She always finds someone else. Then I gotta rescue her.”
It has been over 25 years since the pair appeared together for the first time. “Super Mario Bros” launched in 1985 to worldwide acclaim and success. It was what propelled Mario in the big time, from star to superstar.
“I was like Michael Jackson or Madonna. Everyone knew me. Everyone loved me.” He sips his scotch, pauses, then adds, “My persona was so big there was nothing I could do wrong.”
Indeed, Mario became Midas, with almost everything he touched turning to gold. Since 1981, Mario has appeared in at least one new video game release per year, including arcade, console, and handheld games, as well as ports and re-releases. Over thirty years, his titles have sold 210 million units, more than any other mascot.
“I’m not a mascot,” Mario chides me. “The Philly Fanatic is a mascot. I’m the Frank Sinatra of video games. I’m Bugs bleeding Bunny. I’m Joe God Damn DiMaggio. I’m a marquee name! I’m Super Mario!”
A string of successes followed “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros,” all multi-million unit sellers. T-shirts, posters, lunch boxes, TV shows, a movie, and more flooded the market.
“Some of those things, boy, they were crazy. I love that Bob Hoskins played me in a movie, but that shit was bad. Mi fa cagare.”
Through the ups and downs, Mario still looks back at those times with fond memories. And he has no regrets.
“It was a great time. Yeah, there are young kids that are bigger draws than me now, but so what? I’m still huge. I was the cream of the crop back then and I’m still a million dollar star today. I’m Robert DeNiro in overalls. Mama mia!”