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Will The Real Italian American Actor Please Stand Up?
by Cookie Curci
Peter Falk, the veteran actor who portrays TV's cunning inspector Colombo, does such an excellent job at imitating the Italian American sleuth that most TV viewers believe Peter Falk to be of Italian descent. In reality, Falk is Russian and Polish, with a mix of Hungarian and Czech further back in his ancestry. So, contrary to Falk's public image, he is not Italian American but a mixture of very hardy Eastern European stock.
On the other hand, there are those 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.
Actress Yvonne DeCarlo, "Lily 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 as a regular guest on his show an Italian born golf pro by the name of "Guido Panzini". Audiences, especially Italian Americans, fell in love with the handsome and hilarious Italian golf pro from Salerno, Italy. Panzini returned again and again to the show, week after week, the Italian community embraced the comedian with great affection believing him to be from the old country. 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 playing sinister character roles influenced how an audience perceived the ethnic background of their favorite stars. During the 1930s and '40s, one of Hollywood's popular dramatic actors was Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg), the actor was not Italian but but he portrayed so many mobsters with ethnic surnames that fans mistakenly believed him 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 streetwise tough guy and mobster boss. He is best remembered for his work in "Oceans 11" and The Godfather trilogy.
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