The Godfather Legacy: Assessing The Damage

How Francis Ford Coppola's work of art ultimately did more harm than good to Italian Americans.

The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning epic The Godfather. Since 1972, this film has had a special place in America’s heart. It is, its champions say, more than just a movie. Over the years, we have been told that the three-hour mob saga (and its sequels) represents family, honor, and the immigrant struggle. It is, in short, the quintessential film about America.

The Godfather’s timing was also perfect: It came after the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, when the Vietnam War, racial strife, political assassinations, drug addiction, and domestic chaos ran rampant. In short, America needed a return to an era of rules and reasonable men. And in the figure of the fictional Don Vito Corleone, Americans got what they needed: a patriarchal figure par excellence, a man who seemed to transcend politics.

The Godfather, its defenders say, isn’t really about criminals, or even Italians. It was, and remains, a work of art that wove our nation’s immigrant roots with the struggles of capitalism and the eternal quest for justice. To underscore this point, Mario Puzo, author of the original book and co-writer of the movie, quoted Honore de Balzac’s famous statement that “behind every fortune is a crime.” The Italian underpinnings were seen as superfluous.

Even Marlon Brando, a stalwart liberal, when asked before the film’s release about the stereotyping of Italians as gangsters, simply rationalized it: “This is a film about American capitalism.” One could also say the same about the heroic cowboys who regularly wiped out Native Americans in John Ford movies, clearing the way for vast Caucasian real estate acquisitions.

Such attitudes are what led The Godfather to become the single most regressive cultural and political influence on any American ethnic group since D.W. Griffith’s civil war epic, Birth of A Nation (1915). It advanced the art of film but it also set Italian Americans back 100 years, resurrecting crude criminal stereotypes of the community created by turn-of-the-century ‘yellow journalists’. Although Italian Americans did finally assimilate into American society, as noted in a famous 1983 New York Times Magazine cover story, our media image, then and now, remains frozen-in-time.

Let’s make one thing clear: loving The Godfather doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It’s possible to appreciate the film’s artistic qualities, such as Gordon Willis’s justifiably famous cinematography, with its innovative use of back-lighting, without using them to promote ethnic prejudice.

But, let’s also make another thing clear: like any public work (think of the public statue debates over the summer of 2020), The Godfather also has its not-so-ambiguous side. Isn’t it time to take an objective look at how the success of the film negatively impacted Americans of Italian descent — even into the present day? A popular film carries more weight than a mere statue.

With apologies to David Letterman, here are the Top Ten Reasons why cultural productions like The Godfather ultimately did more harm than good to Italian Americans:

  • They contributed to criminalize the history of the Italian American immigrant experience — a history, ironically, in which Italians were themselves victims of nativist criminals (e.g. the 1891 massacre in New Orleans).
  • They reaffirmed the prejudicial belief that criminal behavior is integral to Italian culture, regardless of where Italians emigrate;
  • They distorted the way Italian Americans viewed themselves, reinforcing a sense of inferiority via Anglo-American historical dominance;
  • They frustrated Italian American artists in Hollywood who have tried to present Italian culture in non-stereotypical ways;
  • They made Italian Americans continual objects of mockery by cartoonists, stand-up comics, and late-night talk and sketch shows;
  • They influenced the way journalists report on crime, many of whom used references to the film as a source of research;
  • They emboldened ambitious states’ attorneys to view Italian surnamed criminals as meal tickets for further political ascendency;
  • They stifled the careers of several national Italian American politicians to our nation’s highest political offices: President and Vice President.

Finally, The Godfather has created a billion-dollar spin-off industry which has since spread to every conceivable media outlet in America: television, books, theater, advertising, cable, video games, and even, as of 2004, children’s programming with Shark Tale, an animated film which caricatures Italian Americans as surely as the racist — and now banned — Walt Disney cartoon Song of the South caricatured African Americans in 1946. For good measure, 2016’s Oscar-winning cartoon Zootopia, a film which preached tolerance as its theme, also featured a Godfather caricature.

If The Godfather was the answer to a battered America’s prayers, it was also, first and foremost, a perverse inspiration to Italian American men.

The shame is overcome

The 1940s and 1950s were, for Italian American males, eras of public humiliation, an outgrowth of the seeming incompetence and cowardice of Italy’s armed forces during the Second World War. Joe DiMaggio and the world of sports only carried so far in a man’s world. World War II still loomed large during this era. History was what the English and Anglo-Americans said it was. Jokes and zingers abounded, as they still do, denigrating Italian military prowess, despite evidence to the contrary.

Similarly, in this country, Italian American soldiers, although they comprised the largest ethnic fighting force overseas, found their accomplishments overlooked and seldom lauded. World War II heroes like Sgt. John Basilone and ace fighter pilot Don Gentile were overshadowed by Hollywood’s chosen golden boy, Audie Murphy. Images in American popular culture were no better, be they the bumbling immigrant in Life With Luigi or a talking mouse on The Ed Sullivan Show named Topo Gigio.

Ominously, the only Italian men treated with any degree of seriousness in the media were Italian crooks, whether real (appearing at the U.S. Congressional hearings of the 1950s) or rehashed (television’s popular 1950s show The Untouchables).

The salvation for Italian American males came with the publication of Mario Puzo’s 1968 pulp novel, The Godfather. There was no surrender or white flag in the gang wars. Instead of columns of war-weary Italians shrugging off to prison camps, or of semi-literate blue-collar workers, ‘men of honor’ defended their turf to the death (“we go to the mattresses!”).

When brought to the big screen in 1972, The Godfather restored the macho to the Italian American male image.

By comparison, Jewish Americans also suffered during this period, and well before, from the media stereotype of the sedentary nebbish until Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six Day War (1967). Thereafter, Israelis became world-class fighters, and American Jews still bask in the reflected glory.

Macho turns to ridicule

While American Jews rose up the ladder of respect on the shoulders of the Israelis, as well as their own political and financial hegemony in this country, Italian Americans found that The Godfather wasn’t the magic makeover for which they had hoped. Puzo’s gimmicky novel, amplified via Coppola’s grand-opera film, devolved over the decades into comical spin-offs and shallow, self-serving parodies (e.g, HBO’s The Sopranos).

Even once-respected terms within Italian culture — ‘godfather’, ‘family’, ‘soprano’ — are now sources of insults by non-Italians. Ultimately, the Italian American gangster has become an overweight, blue-collar guy with a goofy nickname and only a passing command of the English language.

Fifty years after The Godfather, the Italian American gangster is anything but intimidating. His crimes pale in comparison to other ethnic groups who perpetrate billions in Medicaid fraud, financial schemes, identity theft, and drug trafficking. These crimes dwarf the sums that a handful of Italian thugs still gain from sports betting and loan sharking. There is little macho left in the aging wiseguys whom the FBI regularly parade before the media.

Instead of an Italian American version of Robin Hood or Billy the Kid, the ‘made men’, both then and now, were usually high school drop-outs, pathetic shadows of the ‘men of honor’ the cinema has conned us with. It is instructive to note, for example, that real-life wiseguys, impressed by the ‘classiness’ of the fictional Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, soon began cleaning up their own verbiage and dressing in three-piece suits.

The real-life inspiration for the fictional Don Vito Corleone — another Vito, the New York crime boss Vito Genovese — was far from a kind, grandfatherly figure. He murdered people, made millions off of heroin, and died in prison. One can’t imagine him cavorting happily in a tomato garden with a child, as Don Vito does so memorably toward the end of the movie.

In short, ‘reel’ Italian gangsters overtook ‘real’ Italian gangsters in the public’s imagination. Even though 99.9% of Italians, here and in Italy, had nothing do to with crime or criminal gangs, The Godfather became the holy gospel of the Italian immigrant experience, and the kick-ass Corleones became role models of toughness to Americans from all walks of life.

One can only imagine what Coppola must think now when he sees his classical dialogue and nomenclature applied to doddering street thugs.

Objective journalists delight in playing up Italian thugs’ nicknames, or quoting lines from the movie while covering court cases. FBI agents and up-and-coming states’ attorneys know that prosecuting Italian surnamed gamblers will move them up the career ladder. Politicians such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who prosecuted mob guys, frequently mimicked Don Vito Corleone at public fundraisers — not to scare people, but to amuse them.

Essentially, Coppola’s work of art ushered in an age of ridicule.

A deeply flawed culture?

Talk to any average Italian American across the nation and ask them if anyone in their family is a criminal, associates with criminals, or raises their kids to be criminals. The answer will be a largely resounding, “No. We’re good Americans.” Why, then, do so many of them embrace a film that portrays them as bad Americans? How can they not see that the fictional Don Vito Corleone, as the late New York governor Mario Cuomo once pointed out, is basically a caricature of their own fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who were genuine ‘men of honor’ — that is, hard-working Americans? Why do they not distinguish between the form of The Godfather (its cinematic skill) and its content (the negative imagery)?

In addition to living vicariously through its tough-guy characters, millions of Italian Americans — men and women — still worship The Godfather because it provides a nebulous sense of pride about their heritage. In truth, they probably know very little, if anything, about Italy or Italian culture. They think that watching The Godfather provides them with a direct pipeline:

“Yes, I’ve been to Italian weddings like that.”

”I love cannoli.”

”My grandfather had a tomato garden just like Don Vito’s.”

Watching a film is much easier than actually reading a book or traveling to Italy. More Italian Americans have probably been to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas than have actually visited the picturesque city near Lake Como.

This ‘dumbing down’ isn’t unique to Italian Americans, of course; however, the extent to which they refuse to move beyond The Godfather image is disturbing. One can understand, if not condone, culturally ignorant Italian Americans from the post-WWII era embracing the macho of mafia lore, but there is no such excuse today. Assimilation has taken place. We live in an era of so-called sensitivity. Stereotyping is no longer accepted.

Sadly, what the previous generation has passed down to the current one is the same sense of ethnic fatalism characteristic of their immigrant grandparents — who, to be fair, were also cruelly caricatured by the popular media over a century ago. It is basically the psychological equivalent of a shoulder shrug, a gesture which echoes the sense of shame and low self-esteem likewise inflicted upon their greenhorn ancestors: “Don’t make waves  Stop speaking Italian . . . We are inferior . . . We can’t do anything about insults . . . We’re lucky that America let us come here.

In fact, the Founding Fathers of our country rejected their English homeland and took inspiration from another nation: Italy. It was from classical Rome and the Italian Renaissance that people like Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams took succor. There is even a real godfather, if you will, who guided our new nation: the political writer Filippo Mazzei, who provided his Virginia neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, with feedback and ideas for the Declaration of Independence. To this day, the Tuscan city of Poggio a Caino remains sister cities with Charlottesville, Virginia, a symbol of this friendship.

The rejection of classical Italian culture, or even an appreciation of notable Italians throughout American history, is what has led to the current erosion of any sense of genuine ethnic pride. It is a long, sad slide from real people like Mazzei to the fictional Don Vito to the panoply of goombas, guidos, and reality show goofballs who permeate every American media outlet today.

Cinematic scarlet letter

If the media is your source of knowledge, Italian Americans top the chart for criminal mischief. Thanks to The Godfather, America doesn’t enjoy hearing about the endless war on drugs against Hispanic, Eastern European, Asian and other criminals. Corporate crime is multi-ethnic and boring. But these criminals needn’t fear the spotlight when a don or a wiseguy hits the newsprint. In the media’s eyes, 40-year old mob crimes consistently outrank today’s murders or bombings.

Don Vito Corleone’s fictional shadow looms large.

In his seminal 1986 book, The Story of English, writer Robert MacNeil explains why: “Hollywood’s love affair with gangster movies has ensured a wide dissemination of criminal slang. The fact that these words — in the minds of many — now come with Italian accents, has to do with the power of the media, not the mafia.”

And what about the power of the U.S. government? Within the space of 15 years, the U.S. Congress held three public hearings on gamblers and low-lives during the post-WWII era: the Kefauver Commission of 1954, the Valachi Hearings of 1963, and the President’s Commission on Organized Crime of 1967.

Such Congressional hearings, if held today, and if focused on other ethnic, racial, or religious groups, would immediately be denounced by the media (and rightly so) for fostering unacceptable negative stereotyping. But, these hearings put the new medium of television on the map, just as the popularity of the 1932 film Scarface reflected the growing cultural power of film.

The results of those investigations, skewed toward a secret criminal organization called Cosa Nostra, allegedly run by Italian Americans and controlling crime in all fifty states, took hold of the public imagination. Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s film added the mythology and the cultural texture just as Da Vinci and Michelangelo transformed the Bible from words to paintings.

Scholars who exposed the media’s obsession with Italian criminals, such as Professor Dwight Smith in his 1974 book The Mafia Mystique, were lonely voices in the wilderness. Research can’t compete with Hollywood hype.

Predictably, most Italian Americans fell for the hype; they were all-too-eager to embrace this grafting of crime and culture on the big screen. It was magic to see an Italian story sweep America. Pizzerias, delis, and gift shops amplified the message that the Italians were the big shots. Move over Murder Inc.! Suddenly, other ethnic crime syndicates, despite their own major notoriety, became minor league.

It is noteworthy that no other American ethnic group has ever achieved the cinematic status of Italians in crime, despite scattered attempts by various filmmakers (e.g., The Yakuza by Sydney Pollack, Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone, and The Road to Perdition by Sam Mendes).

America’s etch-a-sketch

Unlike pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), the scandalous civil war epic which demonized African Americans, The Godfather won’t sleep with the fishes very soon. As demonstrated by that last sentence, the film’s famous catch-phrases, and its story of family loyalty, have become part of accepted Americana. It is even the favorite film of former President Barack Obama — a cutting irony, given that a former president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, now denounced as a racist, praised Griffith’s masterpiece (“It is history written in lightning!”).

Times and sensibilities have changed, and yet the idea of Italians-as-criminals holds strong. The content of the film isn’t seen as prejudicial at all. Indeed, in the film You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’s character refers to The Godfather as “the source of all wisdom.”

A few years ago, the American Film Institute voted The Godfather the second-greatest American film of all time, after Citizen Kane. It has even crept into Sight & Sound magazine’s famous Critic’s Poll, a Top Ten list of all-time great movies voted on by critics around the world every 10 years. Yet, in the final analysis, is The Godfather truly a fresh and original work of art, or of propaganda masquerading as art — a blurring of fact and fiction?

Propaganda is a technique whereby facts are selectively omitted in order to collectively influence a large audience, either to buy a product or, in this case, to accept an image of a community. And propaganda quite often uses stereotypes — that is, a limited way of looking at a particular ethnic group, over and over and over again.

In 1968, when a down-and-out novelist named Mario Puzo needed to erase some gambling debts, he knew that writing a mafia story would catch on enough to make some money. Newspaper articles and TV Congressional hearings had long conditioned public perceptions. What he could not have predicted is that, when his pulp novel was finally turned into a movie, he had successfully melded Italian culture and criminality into one-and-the-same.

As it turned out, the film broke box-office records, and it remained, for over a decade, one of the highest-grossing American movies of all-time, surpassing even Gone With the Wind. To add icing on top of the cannoli cake, American film critics, with few exceptions (John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann among them), praised Coppola’s work as “the greatest gangster movie ever made in this country” (so wrote the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael).

First do no harm

Some high-profile Italian Americans did pan the film when it came out, particularly singers Tony Bennett (born Anthony Benedetto) and Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti). Bennett called the film’s linking of crime with Italian culture “pernicious,” adding, “It gives the impression that organized crime is all Italian, when, in fact, it consists of many nationalities.”

Dean Martin didn’t like what it did to the Italian people: “There was no call for that,” he told reporter Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News. “I’ve met gangsters in real-life, and they weren’t Italian.”

In 1974, the St. Louis priest and social activist, Father Sal Polizzi, told TIME Magazine that “every time the media uses the term ‘mafia’, they take away my civil rights. 46 years later (in 2020), Father Polizzi — whose parents were first-generation Sicilians — hadn’t changed his views: “Can you believe they’ve been showing that movie all day on cable, and on Thanksgiving on top of it? What an absolute disgrace. I still go out of my way to tell people that [The Godfather] is an insult to both my mother and my father.”

In 1987, the Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko, a non-Italian, even coined the phrase ‘The Godfather Syndrome’. Royko, who was defending then-New York governor Mario Cuomo against charges of ‘oversensitivity’ for speaking out against anti-Italian slurs, noted how Coppola’s film perpetuated a stereotype so powerful that it made objective journalists view Italian surnamed politicians with suspicion. It is this ingrained prejudice which many still consider the major reason why the gifted and eloquent Cuomo ultimately decided against a run for the presidency in 1992.

Cuomo had a good reason to take a pass. When Geraldine Ferraro was selected in 1984 to be the first female presidential candidate for a national ticket, reporters like ABC’s Sam Donaldson demanded to know, on national television, if any of her relatives were “in the mafia.” Imagine reporters today asking our current female vice president, Kamala Harris, if any of her relatives are crack cocaine dealers, based on nothing but crude stereotypes.

In 1991, during a national press conference, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was asked about the possibility of Cuomo as a potential challenger to President George Bush. Marlin’s response: “Mario? Mario? What kind of a name is Mario?” The not-so-subtle answer: Not an American one.

Indeed, there is a veritable laundry list of Italian Americans whose careers in politics were directly blunted by ‘The Godfather Syndrome’. To wit:

  • Senator John Pastore (D-RI), a popular potential VP candidate for President Johnson’s reelection campaign in 1964, who was nixed after aides pointed out that his “eye-talian” last name would be a handicap, given the 1963 Valachi organized crime hearings;
  • Joseph Alioto, the dynamic mayor of San Francisco in the 1960s who successfully sued LOOK Magazine for defamation for associating him with criminals, but who later lost bids both for California governor and a possible VP spot with Jimmy Carter;
  • Albert Rosellini, the popular and reform-minded governor of Washington State during the 1960s whose comeback bid in the mid-70s was derailed by Godfather caricatures;
  • Lido ‘Lee’ Iacocca, the brilliant businessman who rescued the Chrysler Company from bankruptcy in the 1980s, who was compared to a “mafia don” in numerous, supposedly ‘positive’ media profiles;
  • And, as mentioned, Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY), the first female vice presidential candidate on a major ticket (1984), whom journalists also tried to ‘mob up’ via her father’s gambling conviction and some of her husband’s dead-beat real estate tenants (nothing was ever proven).

It should be noted that, even though Italian Americans eventually broke the ethnic glass ceiling in politics, it didn’t mean that respect soon followed. In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, both progressive Democrats, were caricatured as gun-toting gangsters on the front cover of the New York Daily News — an unthinkable lapse in an era of respect for diversity. Endless mob movies, either new ones or those endlessly repeated on cable television, continue to make such prejudice palatable, even among highly educated Americans.

Media Land vs reality

Anyone who watches the myriad cable stations finds a fiber-optic America that is a lot different than the one we actually live in. Nearly every TV series and movie is overloaded with minority and female super characters, whether on a fictitious police force, a hospital staff, or legal practice.

Judging by these shows, America has successfully transcended racism, anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. But one group still remains a stock character in Media Land: the Italian American. Need a mobster?  Need a white guy with serious flaws? Need a bumbling comical sidekick?  These voids are filled easily with characters having Italian surnames.

The Godfather saga and its progeny continue to dominate the cable stations regardless of how dated they are. Though made in the 1970s, the film can usually be found at least three times a month somewhere on cable. And there are always Godfather festivals and anniversaries to put the series in a weeklong loop. It is easily more prevalent than the Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind. Such an immortal presence, along with reruns of The Sopranos, Analyze This, and Goodfellas, ensures that succeeding generations of young Americans are being imprinted with these anti-Italian criminal stereotypes, even in a more enlightened society.

And not only as criminals, but as buffoons: Constant repeats of 1992’s My Cousin Vinny, featuring Joe Pesci as a dressed-in-leather lawyer, degrade the dignified public image of such Italian American lawyers as Vincent Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted 1960s killer Charles Manson, and Daniel Petrocelli, who literally made O.J. Simpson pay at his 1997 civil trial.

Despite the abundance of Italian American lawyers, doctors, teachers, police officers, firemen, businesspeople, sports figures, and military types in real society, you will rarely find them on television or in the cinema. Italian media stereotyping is so ubiquitous that even Italian American actors have internalized the negativity and generally play non-Italic roles. Screenwriters use formulas to create characters. Why waste valuable screen time to develop a suspicious character when you can give him or her an Italian name? The audience expects it and is always rewarded.

Remember, there were no good Italians in The Godfather saga, just different degrees of thieves and murderers. Ditto Goodfellas and The Sopranos.

In 2015, the Italic Institute of America completed a sampling of over 1,500 Hollywood movies made about Italians since 1915. Two statistics about The Godfather stood out:

  • There was a sharp increase in films featuring Italians as gangsters after the film’s release (81%), an increase which shows no signs of slowing down fifty years later;
  • Out of over 500 films featuring Italians as gangsters, nearly 90% of those movies portray fictional mobster characters with no basis in reality — in short, phony stereotypes, dreamed up by hack Hollywood screenwriters.

Like a virus, this pattern has since spread to American culture in general: advertisements, TV shows, and fictional novels often feature evil or corrupt characters with Italian surnames. And, since the media make absolutely no attempt to balance such blanket negativity, ‘reel’ Italians continue to overwhelm ‘real’ Italians, an irony which would have dazzled — and surely sickened — a writer like Luigi Pirandello (himself a Sicilian). The fact that there are more Italian cops than Italian crooks is seen as a fantasy.

Filmmakers who have tried to fight this tsunami of negativity quickly found out what they were up against.

In 1996, for example, actor Stanley Tucci, frustrated at endless stereotypical portrayals of Italians on-screen, made Big Night, a comedy-drama about two Italian immigrant brothers in 1950s New Jersey (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub). Studio heads, although they liked the script, were uneasy about financing the film unless Tucci “put a mob guy in it” — which, in their minds, made the film more palatable to audiences, more believable as an Italian story. Tucci refused. Big Night was eventually financed independently.

In a tragic irony, the people who have fostered this now-institutionalized cultural (and even international) prejudice were the Italic brains behind The Godfather: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

A year before his death in 1999, author Mario Puzo finally came clean in an Associated Press interview: “Italian criminals never called each other godfather. Never. It was a term that I made up. I wanted to create a romantic myth, like the American cowboy.”

And in a 2003 interview in Cigar Aficionado Magazine, Francis Ford Coppola shocked his interviewer by admitting that he “knew nothing” about Italian American criminals. Quote Coppola: “I just assumed that Italian criminals were no different than regular Italians. I based them on my Italian relatives who, of course, were not criminals. (Ed. note: Coppola’s father, Carmine, was a respected musician in Arturo Toscanini’s renowned NBC Orchestra of the 1930s and 40s). It was like making a film about Jewish traditions without knowing any Jewish traditions.”


It took decades, but D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was finally put into its proper context. It is rarely, if ever shown; indeed, an announced public showing in Los Angeles in 2003 was cancelled by the mere hint of possible protests. It is now confined to art-house screenings or film school classrooms, where critics and instructors alike are careful to distinguish between the film’s undeniable artistry (form) and its blatant racism (content). The shrinkage of that film has finally allowed African Americans their fair shot at living the Hollywood dream of proper media representation.

In yet another example of cultural irony, the D.W. Griffith Award, given annually to a respected Hollywood filmmaker, had Griffith’s named removed in 1999. It was considered unseemly to give out an award named for a filmmaker who managed to distort — even uglify — the soul of an entire American ethnic group via one single film. Hollywood applauded the move.

And one of the chief proponents behind the change? Francis Ford Coppola!

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