Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

You'd think Mario Puzo - author of "The Godfather," a man who's just sold paperback rights to a new novel for a record $2.55 million - would have been on top of the world.

"I'm a wreck," he said Monday evening at a party for him in New York's literary-drenched Algonquin Hotel.

"I'm going to Sicily for the first time this summer, and I'm scared stiff. I've never found Italians to be very warm people. I'm looking for protection.

"And that auction. I was nervous all day. It ruined my tennis game. People are funny. They're making a big deal out of this. If I'd won 50 grand at the crap table, nobody would think nothing of it."

Puzo's new novel, "Fools Die," is about a writer who makes it big in the literary and movie world - and in Las Vegas. "This is the hero of my novel," Puzo said, pointing to "Catch-22" author Joseph Heller. "Doesn't he look like a high roller?"

"Sure," said Heller pointing back at Puzo. "And he's the hero of my new novel ("Good As God," the story of a college professor named Gold).

Puzo, who recently wrote a nonfiction book about Las Vegas, said he hasn't been to the new casino in nearby Atlantic City yet.

"Wait in line to gamble to lose money?" he said. "That's the craziest thing I ever heard."

The normally reclusive author was being besieged by admirers. Introduced by his editor, William Targ, to "the woman who made a man out of you," Elaine Koster (the head of New American Library who bid the $2.55 million for the paperback rights to the book), Puzo asked like a bewildered schoolboy, "Did you really like the book that much?"

Byron Dobell, the Life senior editor who has decided to run the first chapter of the novel when the magazine restarts this fall, said, "Mario, I really love the Mailer character."

"You think Mailer will like it?" Puzo asked. And then, like an author out of a limb, he added, "Did you really like the last chapter? I was really taking a chance on that."

The push continued. A "Today" show producer asked Puzo to be on the morning television program.

"I hate television," he said. "I'll think about it."

A New York journalist asked if surely he could have afforded a newer jacket than the old camel's hair item he was wearing.

"It's the only one I own," Puzo said, "and that's a really dumb question."

And when Ben Bodne, owner of the Algonquin - the hotel that has played mother to the great New York writers of the last half-century - stopped by, Puzo quipped, "What are you doing here? I always run into you at the Beverly Hills Hotel."

To Heller, the big stakes gambled on Puzo's novel is a healthy thing for the author business. "It shows these publishing companies have a lot of money and that they know that there's a big profit to be made off novels. When I sold 'Catch-22,' you'd get 4-6 percent in paperback royalties. Now it's up to 15 percent."

Meanwhile, Puzo talked briefly about the treatment he's just done for the film "Godfather III."

"It's about actor Al Pacino's son," he said. "He continues in the business. People always ask me, 'If these guys had so much on the ball, why didn't they go straight?' I tell them, it seems to me that they never had the leverage."

"Well," interrupted a woman, "you must be wealthier than most Mafia people."

"Oh no," said Puzo. "I'm taxable."