Is Your Favorite Italian Actor Really Italian?

Is Your Favorite American Italian Actor Really of Italian Decent, or Just a Convincing Actor?

As much as I would have loved to include every Italian American actor in show business, there was no way I could include everyone in this article. All of the names and movie work of all these great American Italian actors can be found at imdb.

True Italian American Actor … Alan Alda Starred in MASH

Peter Falk, the veteran actor who portrayed TV’s cunning inspector Colombo, did such an excellent job at imitating the Italian American sleuth that most TV viewers believed Peter Falk to be of Italian descent.

Italian Actor Alan Alda, born Alfonso D'Abruzzo.
Alan Alda, born Alfonso D’Abruzzo.

In reality, Falk was Russian and Polish, with a mix of Hungarian and Czech further back in his ancestry. So, contrary to Falk’s public image, he was not Italian American but a mixture of very hardy Eastern European stock.

On the other hand, there are actors who, in real life, are of Italian heritage, but because of a changed name and the roles they choose to play are rarely linked to their Italian ancestry. For example, actor Alan Alda, “Hawkeye” of TV’s M.A.S.H. fame was born Alfonso D’Abruzzo. When the actor’s father, Robert Alda, entered show business he changed his Italian surname to better assimilate into American culture.

Armando Catalano … Guy Williams

Dashing actor Guy Williams (1924-1989), was born in the Bronx and raised in New York City. He starred in the TV series Zorro from 1957 to 1960. Later he also starred as Dr. John Robinson in the popular “Lost In Space” series. But this actor’s real name was Armando Catalano and was very much an Italian American.

Peter Falk
Peter Falk

Acting The Part Or Really Italian?

Actress Yvonne DeCarlo, “Lilly Munster,” of TV’s “The Munsters,” was born Peggy Middleton, but changed her average sounding name to the more exotic, Italian-sounding, Yvonne DeCarlo.

During the 1960s when Jack Paar was king of late night television, he had on a regular guest, an Italian born golf pro by the name of “Guido Ponzini.” Audiences, especially Italian Americans, fell in love with the handsome and hilarious Italian golf pro from Salerno, Italy. Ponzini returned again and again to the show, week after week the Italian community embraced the comedian with great affection believing him to be from their native land. Until it was revealed that the whole thing had been a clever ruse and the Italian golf pro was, in reality, Irish American comic Pat Harrington Jr.! Harrington had all the gestures, mannerisms and the Italian accent down so well he fooled just about everyone, including Italian Americans.

Mannerisms, images, and an association with a certain element of crime has influence how Hollywood selects the actors to portray their roles. During the 1930s and ’40s, two of Hollywood’s popular dramatic actors were George Raft (George Ranft) and Edward G. Robinson (Emmanuel Goldberg), neither actor was Italian but they portrayed so many mobsters with ethnic surnames that fans mistakenly believed them to be of Italian descent. Another actor from that era was Italian American Richard Conte who chose to keep his original family name and, perhaps, because of it, and his dark ethnic looks, was typecast throughout his career as a street wise tough guy and mobster boss. He is best remembered for his work in Oceans 11 and The Godfather trilogy.

One of TV’s most prolific actors, during the golden age of television, was Anthony (Tony) Caruso. During TVs western genre, Caruso, the son of Italian immigrants, was cast in so many Native American roles that most TV viewers believed the actor to be a Native American actor.

Anthony Quinn is a vintage Hollywood actor with strong, ethnic, good looks commonly believed to be Italian American. His work with famous director Federico Fellini and Italian born actresses Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren added to that belief. In realty, Quinn is of Mexican-Irish decent.

Then there’s the hit TV sitcom, “Everybody loves Raymond,” especially Italian American TV viewers who can well relate to Ray’s Italian American family, his brother Robert, his wife Debra, his father Frank and mother Marie. However, despite all the realism, Ray Romano is the only actor on the series whose heritage is Italian American.

Henry Winkler did such a convincing job of acting like the cool, motorcycle riding “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on “Happy Days,” that fans believed him to be Italian. Truth is, Winkler couldn’t ride a motorcycle and he was no more Italian than Richie Cunningham.

Actor Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for his portrayal of a lonely Italian American bachelor in the academy award winning film, Marty. Borgnine whose family names are Borgnino-Bonselli has his family roots in Italy, but after Marty, perhaps afraid of being typecast, few of his roles reflected his Italian heritage. Most fans know him best as the comical Lt. Commander McHale from TV’s McHale’s Navy (1963-66).

Richard Crenna’s looks and name never typecast him. For that reason, few fans knew the actor was Italian American and that his parents came from Tuscany, Italy. His television character roles included Luke McCoy on TV’s The Real McCoys’ and Walter Denton on the Our Miss Brooks series. But the role that brought him a unique cult following of fans was his characterization of Colonel Trautman in the film series Rambo, starring Sylvester Stallone. Stallone like many of the current actors chose to light up the marquee with his original ethnic name.

The first famous Italian American actor to change his name for the screen was, of course, the great silent screen star Rudolph Valentino. Whose real name was Rudolpho Guglimi De Valentina. No matter his name, his dark Latin good looks were unmistakable and irresistible to female fans. Movie goers of the 1930s and ’40s, put stars like Valentino high on a pedestal. For that reason common names had to be changed to attract fans to the box office.

Hollywood Name Changers

Today’s Hollywood is just the opposite of the old standards. They want to use ethnic names to create the illusion that their stars are just like the average guy or gal next door. Otherwise stars such as Ray Romano may have easily become Ray Roberts and Joe Mantegna – Joe Martin?

Years ago, many Italian American actors changed the family surname on the advice of their agents. Oscar winning actress Ann Bancroft was in real life born Anna Marie Louise Italiano. Penny Marshall, Laverne DiFasio of Laverne and Shirley, was born Penelope Masciarelli, Connie Stevens was Concetta Rosalie Engolia, Robert Blake was born Michael Gubitosi, Nicolas Cage – Nicolas Coppola, Vince Edwards was Vincent Zoino, Talia Shire was born Talia Coppola, James Darren – James Ercolani, Rock star Madonna was born Louise Veronica Ciccone, Tony Danza was Anthony Ladanza, Bobby Darrin – Roberto Cossotto, and Dean Martin was Dino Crocetti. Italian Actress Sophia Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone, a name that would leave little room for her co-stars on the marquee.

Hollywood has a large number of actors of Italian descent who have maintained their ethnic identity and achieved stardom despite having names that are not easily spelled or pronounced.

Here are some of the actors who chose to light up the marquee with their ethnicity:

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio, Danny Di Vito, Joe Mantegna, Dennis Farrina, Scott Baio, Susan Lucci, Annette Funicello, James Galdofini, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Ben Gazzarra, Tony Franciosa, John Turturro, and Danny Aiello.

Unfortunately, there is one thing that all of these Italian American stars have in common, it is the fact that because of their strong ethnic identity, they have not been asked by Hollywood to portray the role of President of the United States, or anyone else in high political office. Think about it? When’s the last time you saw an Italian actor portray a president of the Untied States? (John Travolta excluded because his role was a thinly veiled imitation of Bill Clinton).

Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court justice.
Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court justice.

Italian Typecast

Hollywood still continues to typecast the Italian looking actor in roles that are usually restricted to comedy buffoons, cagey detectives, pizza parlor owners, and mobster roles. The rare exception to this rule came when actor Joe Mantegna was offered the role of Supreme Court Justice, Joe Novelli, on the TV series First Monday. However, that’s not really much of a stretch for Hollywood, since we already have two sitting Supreme Court justices – Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

Lets hope this is the beginning of a new standard in media typecasting and that the American Italian actor will be cast in powerful roles that inspire respect, and not fear, from America’s viewing audiences. And one day, someone in Hollywood will finally have the inspiration to cast a prominent Italian American actor in the role of President of the United States. Now wouldn’t that be interesting and very satisfying to a generation of hard working Italian Americans who have been waiting so long for their proper recognition.

Cookie Curci
Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a "Remember When" column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of "Mother's Miracle" books ( Morrow books).She has a short story in the new book "ELVIS", Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman's World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L'italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.