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