My wife and I have recently become addicted to the old Columbo series on COZI TV. You might remember the disheveled detective played by actor Peter Falk. Lieutenant Columbo had no first name and his surname was Latinized with a u, as in Columbus.
It seems the surname Colombo, whether in its Latin or Italian form, has played a major part in our heritage. Of course, the Great Navigator was the Colombo who unlocked this hemisphere to millions of immigrants, including our industrious ancestors. But the name was shared by Joe Colombo, a nefarious fellow who founded the Italian American Civil Rights League. Coincidentally, this Colombo’s career ended with bullets fired at a League rally just three months after the premiere of Columbo. Unfortunately, of the three Colombos, Joe had the most enduring effect on our ethnic image, as I’ll explain later.
Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo blazed a positive trail for us. His was the first TV series about a proud and believable Italian American cop. Debuting in 1971 (young Steven Spielberg directed the first episode), it continued as a TV movie genre right up to 2003. Before Columbo Italian American characters were more the targets of the law than its representatives. The Untouchables (1959 -1963), starring Robert Stack, was snidely called “cops & wops” for its heavy reliance on Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit for plots. Even the much-beloved Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like It Hot (1959) revolved around Capone and contained an ethnic mob convention billed as The Italian Opera Lovers Association.
Columbo changed that direction. In 1974, NBC launched Petrocelli, a series about a Harvard-educated lawyer. Like Columbo, it starred a Jewish American actor, in this case, Barry Newman. The series only lasted two seasons, but in 1981 Hill Street Blues premiered with Daniel J. Travanti as police Captain Frank Furillo, another officer of the law.
What Peter Falk did for us in entertainment, Joe Colombo undid in the news media in 1971. With a two-year high school education and the media moniker “reputed mob boss,” Colombo grabbed national headlines by picketing FBI offices and holding huge street rallies. He was barely able to put a sentence together but attracted high-minded celebrities like Frank Sinatra to his fundraisers. His world came crashing down when an African American gunman plugged him mid-rally. In the process, Colombo managed to discredit Italian American anti-defamation efforts and permanently scare off potential celebrity supporters and wealthy benefactors. It was Joe Colombo who blessed Coppola’s first Godfather film without reading the script in return for deletion of the word Mafia, a dubious trade-off.
I suggest that Joe Colombo has had a greater impact on our culture than Cristoforo Colombo only because the Admiral is being excised from our pantheon of heroes by the very people who should be extolling him – our politicians and major organizations. The assault on the legacy of Columbus by multiculturalists has turned our leadership into jelly. They treat the name of Cristoforo Colombo as they would treat that of Joe Colombo. The National Italian American Foundation wants nothing to do with his defense, a shocking attitude for the self-proclaimed political powerhouse and “our voice in Washington.” Similarly, on New York’s Staten Island – an Italian American stronghold – the Borough President and the State Senator, both Italic, dropped the name Columbus from that borough’s Columbus Day celebration. You won’t find many profiles in courage among this bunch.
If the man who joined two worlds is treated by our politicians and a major foundation as a 1492 version of Joe Colombo, the only positive Colombo remaining will be the fictional cop on COZI TV. -JLM