Italians In TV

How 80 years of stock characters on television contributed to make Italians fit into the American ‘other’ model. But now things are changing.

Italians In TV
The Godfather. Image by Faraz Zarifiyan.

How 80 years of stock characters on American TV contributed to make Italians fit into the American ‘other’ model.

Italians, and by that I mean both Italians from Italy and Italian Americans from the United States, are stock characters in American film and TV. They are easy to recognize and gaining a familiarity with them is both edifying and entertaining. Let’s take a look at how they have developed over the years.

1940s

In the film It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr and Mrs Martini (William Edmunds and Argentina Brunetti) are immigrants who run a bar in Bedford Falls, a quaint town in upstate New York where George Bailey (James Stewart) reluctantly heads a small bank that he has inherited from his father. The general plot of the film is that life for many of the town’s residents would be much poorer had they not had George’s help, an argument against George’s belief that his life has been a waste. This includes the Martini family, who benefit from George’s assistance that comes in the form of banking and loan services as well as goodwill. One scene shows George’s wife (Donna Reed) offering the Martinis a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread both to welcome them and to wish them good luck in starting their new life as ethnic minorities in a region of the country that is known for its parochialism.

In many ways, the Martinis set the stage for the next eight decades of portrayals of Italians as humble, disadvantaged and needy outsiders, what some social scientists would refer to as an ‘other’ to the stock American character who bears an opposite list of attributes: proud, comfortable and self-reliant. This characterization was influenced at least in part by the experience of American soldiers who served in Italy during World War II, as well as by depictions of Italy and Italians in Neorealist cinema.

1950s

Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish) is the protagonist of Life with Luigi, which began as a radio show in the postwar years and then eventually transferred to television in the 1950s. The plots focused on Luigi’s struggle to integrate into American society, featuring his attendance in night school with other ethnic immigrants, for example, and being pressured by his neighbor into marriage. The show belonged more to the tradition of dialect comedy, in which actors would create and play a character of a particular ethnicity even though it was not an ethnicity that they shared, than to the American situation comedy. Although the show was popular as a radio program, it fared less well on television in the 1950s, meeting stiff resistance from the Italian American community for its stereotyped and unflattering depiction of Italian immigrants, and promptly sank in ratings.

In the cinema, the most notable Italian American character, Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a successful business owner in the Bronx who, though a confirmed bachelor, is driven by passion to pursue Clara (Betsy Blair), a woman who lives in the neighborhood. Borgnine plays his character without resorting to strong ethnic stereotypes, certainly nothing that approaches the broad characterizations that were prevalent in other films of the era. In fact, there seems to be a concerted effort throughout the film to depict Italian Americans as quintessential Americans.

In one notable scene, a woman with an Italian surname speaks with a clear upper class accent and diction. She is also elegantly dressed, especially for someone shopping in a butcher shop, which is Marty’s enterprise. But this was the 1950s, a time in which American culture was highly homogenized and assimilation to the hegemonic culture rather than retention of one’s ethnic identity was the norm. Any talk of multiculturalism or cultural diversity was still decades away. Undoubtedly, the experiences of World War II and Italy’s mixed involvement in it was an impetus. The film offers a nice illustration of the process through which Italians became ‘white’.

1960s

Giannina Marino was a character who appeared in just one episode of My Three Sons, a situation comedy that chronicled the struggle of an aeronautical engineer who was raising his three sons as a single father, although always with the help of a live-in grandfather or uncle. It was an improbable scenario, one of the strange fantasies that found its place only in American television in the 1960s. In one episode, Arrivederci, Robbie, one of the sons accidentally becomes engaged to Giannina, a dark haired beauty, all due to a cultural mixup that occurs when Robbie’s Italian friend invites him to his home so that he can become better acquainted with Italians and their culture.

In the 1960s, Italians were still an exotic subculture in the United States, particularly given the large influx of immigrants that followed the Second World War. That young female characters were frequently highly sexualized is nothing new for American television. If I were a better and more interested cultural critic, I could offer some kind of theory about this, but I am sure you can make one up on your own.

1970s

This decade was the heyday of the Italian American on television, due no doubt to the release of The Godfather in 1972, followed by The Godfather II in 1974, two films by Francis Ford Coppola that consistently rank among the best American films of all time.

Italian characters on television profited from this new popularity, and they played a singularly important role in bringing a certain gravitas and authenticity to programs that had taken a sharp turn towards depicting much grittier worlds. Despite this turn, however, Italians on TV still fit into the American ‘other’ model I described earlier.

Take Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) in the hit sitcom Happy Days. Whereas the main character, Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) lives with his ideal American family in a neat house on a pleasant street, Fonzie, as he is known, comes from a broken home, is a high school dropout, and lives by himself in a rented room above a garage. Despite, or because of a difficult upbringing, Fonzie stands out as the coolest of the show’s characters, especially when compared to Richie and his friends, the naive and awkward Ralph and Potsy. Again, fitting the mold established earlier, ‘The Fonz’ is highly sexualized in that he has an almost magical ability to attract women, being the classic bad boy who rides a motorcycle in a black leather jacket. The only character who comes close to him in coolness is his nephew, Chachi (Scott Baio), a younger and cuter version of Fonzie, but with many of the same qualities.

Laverne and Shirley, a spinoff of Happy Days, told the story of two roommates, Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams). Once again we see a familiar pattern, Laverne is brassier, less sophisticated and more sexual than the prim Shirley, who like Richie Cunningham is a young and well scrubbed Irish American. As in the duality posed by Fonzie and Richie, Laverne is streetwise while Shirley is naive, Laverne is a bit crude while Shirley is a bit refined, and Laverne is earthy and sensual while Shirley is repressed and shy. A tendency toward high self regard and ostentatious display marks this model of the Italian American. Whereas Fonzie wears his iconic leather jacket, Laverne sews a large and loopy ‘L’ on each of her blouses. In contrast, Richie and Shirley maintain an indistinct Americana in their sartorial choices, signaled for example by gingham shirts for Richie and Peter Pan collars for Shirley.

Welcome Back, Kotter launched the career of John Travolta, before his starring role in Saturday Night Fever sent him soaring into the pantheon of American film stars. Once again, as Vinnie Barbarino, Travolta bears all of the traits as the Italian American other: he is earthy, unsophisticated and sexual. In this way he is a version of Fonzie but even more so he is a male version of Laverne: crude but confident and not shy of self promotion. As with Laverne, he relies far more on his face and body (although neither character was classically beautiful or handsome) than on humility, intellectual ability and hard work, traits that Richie and Shirley hold and display. Charm, not discipline, is the card that the stock Italian American character plays.

Father Guido Sarducci, a priest played by Don Novello on Saturday Night Live, is a bit of an outlier. Unlike the other stars of the 1970s, he is an Italian, not an Italian American, and he plays the role broadly, speaking in a thick accent that is best described by the Italian word maccheronico, a word whose etymology and cultural reference is obvious. Typical of the stock tv Italian, Father Guido Sarducci is ingratiatingly humble. Although he broaches topics that were mildly controversial for the time — one skit has him examining the check for the Last Supper — his charm easily overrides any offense he might otherwise cause. If the stock Italian character on television played in one pairing as the unsophisticated and sexual ‘other’ to a more educated but libidinally repressed American, Guido Sarducci embodied another duality: the charming assailant, a dichotomy that lies at the very heart of the character of the Italian American mobster that was so fundamental to The Godfather films, a topic that deserves its own investigation.

1980s

Everything in the 1980s became kinder and gentler, at least on television. Out, for the most part, were the gangsters and the working class families, exemplified by programs such as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son. In were elegant Boston sports bars, tony suburban houses in Connecticut, and impressively large New York apartments. Although the grit and grime did not disappear entirely, the stock Italian American was still strongly in evidence and largely unchanged.

Take Carla and Nick Tortelli, for instance, a working class couple who appeared in the sitcom, Cheers. Here again the unsophisticated Italian is paired with the somewhat more sophisticated Anglo-Irish characters, embodied most clearly by Sam Malone (Ted Danson), a retired baseball player turned bartender, and Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), an overly educated waitress. References to a strange and abundant cuisine, to large and unruly families, and again, to sexual promiscuity and a preternatural charisma that does not map onto conventional beauty standards (both Nick and Carla are short, dark and have fuzzy hair) propel the now well established Italian American stereotype. They stand in contrast to the tall, fair and beautiful Sam and Diane who, nevertheless, suffer from their own shortcomings. They may occupy a slightly more privileged strata in society, but they lack the savvy, resilience and joie de vivre of Nick and Carla.

We see a similar dynamic in the pairing of Tony Micelli (Tony Danza) and his daughter, Samantha (Alyssa Milano) playing the Italians to the apparently waspish Angela Bower (Judith Light) in Who’s the Boss. The setting may be different, an elegant home on a leafy street, but the plot is the same: earthy, unsophisticated Italian American meets stuffy ‘white’ American. Notable in this case is the role of Samantha, who is a pretty preteen who is always under Tony’s protective eye, a feature that provides most of the sexual tension in the show.

In Hill Street Blues we have Frank Furillo (Daniel J Travanti), the tough and experienced police chief who goes head to head with Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), the idealistic public defender. She likes to refer to Furillo as ‘Pizza Man’, a term of endearment that betrays the attraction she feels for him despite the fact that they often contest each other in their professional roles. Again, the tv Italian plays the rogue to the American establishment.

I could say something about Sal (Danny Aiello), Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edison) of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but I doubt I could do it justice. The film pairs Italian American characters not with white Americans, but with black or African Americans, making for a radically different dynamic, even though the Italian depictions fit the traditional model. I could also say something about George Costanza, who was played by Jason Alexander on the hit show, Seinfeld. But again here the case would require special handling because, despite the Italian surname, George was really a Jewish or generic New York character, and his role within the show’s ecology was different from anything that we have examined so far.

1990s

In this decade, television shows moved even farther up the social ladder. Whereas 1970s tv programs were populated almost entirely by poor and working class characters, and the 1980s marked a transition toward the middle class, the 1990s solidified the trajectory. One iconic program, Dougie Howser, MD, told tales from the life of a child prodigy, Dougie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris), whose father is also a physician. Standing as his foil is his best friend, Vinnie Delpino (Max Casella), the son of a man who owns a wholesale plumbing supply and who makes nearly as much as or perhaps even more than Dougie’s father.

Here again we see the Italian other who achieves success not through the privileged lanes of American society, namely university education and professional employment, but through bootstrap commerce. This class difference is highlighted but the fact that Vinnie speaks with a Brooklyn accent, a signifier of the working classes, even though both he and Dougie live in Los Angeles. Vinnie Delpino, like Vinnie Barbarino, is an extension of Laverne DeFazio, the character that was developed by Penny Marshall, who despite the anglicized name came from an Italian American family whose original surname was Masciarelli.

Everybody Loves Raymond portrayed the life of Ray Barone (Ray Romano) and his extended family. Set in Long Island (with one or two exceptions, the East coast of the United States remains the locus of the Italian American community), the show trades in all of the stock Italian American stereotypes: the large and imposing family, especially the bossy stepmother, the class tension between the lower class Italians and upper class Anglo-Irish, the importance and excellence of cuisine on the Italian side in contrast to the insipid Anglo-Irish tradition, and the earthy superiority of the Italians compared to the repressed denials of the Anglo-Irish. The Italian-Irish pairing is particularly common as it maps onto the genuine real life phenomenon of such ethnically mixed marriages that are common in American Catholic communities, particularly as they exist on the east coast.

No discussion of American television in the 1990s could be complete without the inclusion of Friends. Matt Leblanc plays the Italian in the form of Joey Tribbiani, who bears all of the usual trademarks: he is dumb put possesses a natural savvy about life that the other characters do not; he is highly successful with women, if by successful one means that he is highly promiscuous and seems to bear a magical ability to attract them. He is humble and honest, and comfortable in his own skin, rarely suffering from the same kind of neuroticisms and angst that plague the other characters who are all struggling to establish themselves in their first years after having left college. He is an aspiring actor, a trajectory that can be survived only by those who have supreme confidence in themselves. Naturally, he is the only character who speaks with a Brooklyn accent, although all of the characters are presumably from New York. Again, the accent signifies social class more than it does geographic region, at least on tv. Notably, he is the only male character who is handy with tools; such skills are not stock characteristics of Jewish (Ross Green) or Wasp (Chandler Bing) characters. You can take the Italian out of the trades, as the saying might go, but you cannot take the trades out of the Italian.

2000s

I will give the entirety of the 2000s to The Sopranos even though an animated show, Family Guy, engaged ethnic stereotypes, including the Italian/Italian American ones, in an interesting and complex way.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), Paulie Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt) and Furio Giunta (Federico Castelluccio) changed American television. The show marked a watershed in the evolution of the medium, aided in large part by being the product of HBO, which operated outside of the network system, whose reliance on formula in crafting its half hour comedic and one hour dramatic programs had run dry.

The characters are, for the most part, Italian Americans, but as in The Godfather films, it frequently engaged with the relation of Italian Americans to Italians, whether they be forebears, relatives or associates. Of course, the show rooted itself in one of the largest Italian stereotypes of all in that the Sopranos were a family of mobsters — note the typical irony of the nature of the family surname as it compares to the nature of the family enterprise.

What made the show so great is that it spoke genuinely to the Italian/Italian American experience and represented it faithfully. In one scene, a grandfather says to his grandson something along the lines of: “You can’t be Italian if you don’t like artichokes.” It was small but highly resonant insights such as these that pushed the show beyond the stereotypes that characterized every television show, whether it featured Italians or not, that came before it.

Whereas the Italians of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and all of the shows featuring Italians that came after them portrayed Italians in broad, two dimensional terms, the Sopranos provided a three, even four, dimensional rendering that was never before seen on American television. Crucial to its success was its engagement with the psychological lives of its characters, especially Tony Soprano, whom we see in many scenes with his therapist, Jennifer Melfi. For the first time, Italians on American television were not caricatures of Italians, nor were they stock characters who merely bore Italian characteristics or surnames; The Sopranos gave Americans TV viewers a look into the Italian and Italian American experience, and into the human psyche, that it had never given before.

2010s

For the most part, the 2010s did not yield a plethora of Italian characters. 30 Rock, Brooklyn 99 and Orange is the New Black all had characters with Italian surnames, but there was nothing essentially Italian about them. One important exception is the second season of Master of None, which starred and was produced by the standup comedian and comedic actor, Aziz Ansari. Each season centered itself on a love story, each involving Ansari on the male side, and in the first season an American, but in the second an Italian, a real Italian, from Italy, on the female side. Like Spike Lee, Ansari has a special interest in and affection for Italy and Italians, and this comes through strongly in the treatment of Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi).

The season takes place in New York and in Italy, and it is refreshing to see Italians portrayed as modern, contemporary people rather than as ethnic stereotypes. This occurs to some extent also in Spike Lee’s films, more so in Jungle Fever, starring the wonderful Annabella Sciorra, than in Do the Right Thing, which is really a cartoon animated by living actors. It seems that the stock Italian character thrived mostly or only in the standard sitcom where Italians portrayed an American ‘other’.

In productions by Lee, who is African American, and Ansari, who is Indian American, the Italian caricature either did not work, or was wisely rejected in favor of a representation that was far more original, nuanced and interesting. It seems that American television producers, directors and viewers had had enough of Italians, especially stereotyped ones, and were looking for something new. The greater familiarity of Americans with Italy, the real Italy, or at least vacation Italy, due to the growth in tourism over the years, also prepared them for more faithful portrayals of Italian life and culture, and of Italians themselves.

So there you have it: 80 years of Italians on television, give or take. I look forward to seeing what the 2020s deliver. If you think I have missed something, or have gotten something wrong, please feel free to let us know in the comment section below.

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