Going Nowhere: Italian-American Portrayal

Many changes in the American film industry have taken place over the years. Gone are the days of short silent black-and-white productions with title cards for dialog. Along with these changes in technology have come evolving depictions of people.  Well…most people, anyway.

One has to look no further than the images of African Americans in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1916), and compare them to the depictions we see today. The changes started occurring in the 1930’s and 40’s. Just have a look at anything starring Nat King Cole or Lena Horne. Then check out Sidney Poitier in 1960’s, TV shows like the wise-cracking Sanford and Son (starring Redd Foxx) in the 70’s, or Avery Brook’s great portrayal of Captain Benjamin Sisko for the long running series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 90’s.

 STE2Star Trek Telephone by Alex Kerhead used under CC License


Have you noticed that within the total canon of Star Trek, there are very positive images of African-Americans, Hispanics, women, Asians, Native Americans, and aliens of all sorts, but you will not find any character sporting an Italian last name?


Yes, you’ll still find questionable depictions of different ethnic groups these days in film and television. But these have become few and far between. Of course, African-Americans are not the only group to progress from horrid portrayals to something positive. Asian and Native Americans have also been given a boost in their image, along with Hispanics and women.

The fact is that if you want to find positive imagery of most minority groups, you’re going to find it quite easily. And I have no problem with that at all; I’m glad that we as a nation are dropping old prejudices and nonsensical stereotypes. But what I do have a problem with is this: if you attempt to find any positive imagery concerning Italian-Americans, be prepared to do a lot of searching.

Italian stereotyping began in 1906 with Skyscraper, from Biograph (Thomas Edison’s movie company). In this 12-minute reel, the character of “Dago Pete” gets fired for making trouble and fermenting ill will among the other workers. He takes revenge by thieving and planting evidence to make false accusations against his former boss.

NYSkylineNew York City Skyline by Hyun Lee used under CC license

Since then, Italians have always been portrayed as either criminals or loveable dupes. From gangster films like Scarface (1932) to minor characters (like Mrs. Manicotti from the Honeymooners), the imagery is always the same. 1972’s The Godfather created a tidal wave of new gangster films like Honor Thy Father, The Seven-Ups, The Untouchables, and Goodfellas to name a few. Once again the criminal stereotyping was being firmly established.


Italian-American authors like Mario Puzo and Nick Pileggi could only find success when they wrote Mafia tales. Otherwise, it’s possible these talented authors never would’ve been able to get anything published.


Take notice of the minor character of Antonio Scarpacci played by Tony Shalhoub from the TV show Wings (1991-1997). Hopes for a modern and better look at Italians were dashed yet again. Antonio speaks English with an accent, he’s uneducated, and therefore does menial work as a cab driver.

Except for the addition of color and sound, are we really seeing anything different today? The HBO series The Sopranos ran from 1999 to 2007, and the dry old stereotyping continued to be cemented in the psyche of the American public. In 2013 the series was even given an award for the best writing ever on American television (golf clap from me).

The only positive portrayals that I could find were Daniel J. Travanti’s character of Capt. Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) and Columbo (1970’s).  Of course, this was about the time when Ragu ran that infamous commercial that caused outrage. I’d love to provide a link but I simply can’t find it.

Italian-American imagery has gone from “Dago Pete” in 1906 to Tony Soprano in 2007. They say that time heals all wounds and slow gradual change is best. So far, the Italian-American relationship with mass media seems to be frozen in time. I’m still waiting for that first step.


Ernesto San Giacomo is the author of Ragged Souls – Click the pic to go to this Amazon listing


9 thoughts on “Going Nowhere: Italian-American Portrayal

    • Never seen those shows. Are they main characters? Although they may have agreeable personalities, they are still civil servants. Are they Italian in name only a.k.a. “wonder bread wops” (a description from The Sopranos)? Also, I don’t think these shows or their characters were plastered all over the media in the same way as James Gandolfini and the rest of the Sopranos cast.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, they’re cop, agent and starving actor turned famous actor. In fact, after I posted my comment I remembered that Joey then got his own spinoff sitcom, Joey (it ran for two seasons), with his adventures in LA as a successful actor.

        Which reminds me of the other show with an Italian-American protagonist, Melissa and Joey. This Joey is a former financial wiz who’s lost everything and ends up a nanny, in a sitcom that mirrors the premise of Who’s the Boss. Speaking of, Tony Danza was another Italian-American who’s not a mobster in Who’s the Boss.


        • Hello again Nick.
          Tony Danza never comes across as the sharpest knife in the drawer. Criminal was only one of the stereotypes, the other was the loveable dumb dupe.
          Show me examples where the character with the Italian last name is the surgeon instead of the ambulance driver, the captain of industry instead of the guy who owns a small business, the general instead of the common foot-soldier, the judge instead of the clerk.
          Thanks Nick this is turning into a rather fruitful discussion. 🙂


  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t really noticed that, but yeah, I suppose I could see it. I guess I tend to see more of the Asian and Hispanic and Women stereotypes, since that’s what my life is. I’ll have to pay closer attention to the Italians now.


  2. I think that Hollywood (and publishers) want to see stories that they’re familiar with and think will sell. This attitude does nothing for diversity or to challenge stereotypes but they’re not interested in that. Only fattening their pockets. The only way to combat this is to tell our own stories. Granted, I think it’s a lot easier to go indie as an author. Indie films take a lot more money to make and involve so many variables: a writer, director, producer, actors, getting permits, bad weather on the only day to shoot, etc. But it’s possible to get a great team and do something low budget that’s still top quality. In this day and age, if there’s a story that we want to see that nobody else is doing, we probably have to do it ourselves (or learn to do it ourselves) and do all the marketing as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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