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'A Bronx Tale': Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Stereotypes

Op-Ed, The Daily Journal of Millville, New Jersey, January 11, 2015

Chazz Palminteri On Jan. 31, at the Levoy Theater in Millville, actor Chazz Palminteri stages a revival of his original play "A Bronx Tale" (which was turned into a popular 1993 movie with Robert De Niro).

The chief appeal of the show, particularly for Italian Americans of a certain era, is to wax nostalgic over memories of "the old neighborhood" — that is, for the many Little Italys that once dotted the American landscape but which have since become either tourist traps or yuppie playgrounds.

Although Italians have made amazing progress in America in every field of endeavor, sometimes even within one or two generations, there is still one arena — simple yet powerful — where we remain second-class citizens: namely, the entertainment industry (movies, television, and theater).

Sadly, the people who are in the greatest position to change such negative perceptions are Italian American actors, writers and directors. Ironically, they are the ones who have inflicted the worst damage on our community by catering to the mainstream culture's relentlessly distorted view of us.

A quick look at Palminteri's career over the past 20 years provides a good example of what I'm talking about.

Although he did play a competent Italian American detective in "The Perez Family" (1995), the bulk of his Italian surnamed characters merely amplify the Italians-are-thugs mentality, which still pervades Hollywood. To wit:

  • In "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), he played a thug with theatrical aspirations.
  • In "Analyze This" (1999), he was nemesis to Robert De Niro's equally thuggish gangster.
  • In "Boss of Bosses" (2001), he played thug Paul Castellano.
  • In 2005's "In The Mix," in an apparent nod to the Millennial generation, he played a thug opposite the popular singer/rapper Usher.
  • Expanding his talents to the world of video gaming, Palminteri voiced thug Sal DeLuca for 2013's "Mob of the Dead." In 2014, he took a break from movies and videos to bring mob stereotypes to television via "Blue Bloods" (as a mobbed-up lawyer) and "Law and Order" (as a strip-club owner).
  • But, not every Italian surnamed TV role was mob-related: He also played the recurring role of Frank Rizzoli Sr., the crude and clueless father to the female detective on "Rizzoli & Isles." Even Italian TV dads are bad!
  • Also during 2014, in addition to his touring show of "A Bronx Tale," Palminteri branched out to produce a play in L.A. called "Unorganized Crime" about—well, you know.
  • And in 2015, Palminteri stars in the film "Legend," playing the Philadelphia mobster Angelo Bruno.

Obviously, there is a bigger issue here than Chazz's one-trick-pony show: institutionalized stereotyping of Italian Americans in popular culture — a "Jim Crow" attitude in the arts, if you will. But it certainly makes it harder to fight Hollywood bigotry when actors like Palminteri enable the bigots.

Palminteri may have known a mobster in the Bronx but do you know who else also grew up in the Bronx? Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft (born Anna Italiano); novelist Dom DeLillo; painter Ralph Fasanella; Len Riggio, the CEO of Barnes and Noble Bookstores (yes, Italian Americans can read); and, most profoundly, the Piccirilli brothers — no, not a criminal gang, but a family of artisans who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. D.C. Analyze that!

"The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent," says Lorenzo the bus driver to his son in "A Bronx Tale." Alas, it is advice that many Italian American actors still fail to grasp even in 2015.

Bill Dal Cerro is National President of the Italic Institute of America in Floral Park, New York.

 
 
Copyright © 2007 Italic Institute of America, P.O. Box 818, Floral Park, NY 11001     Last updated February 2017