Race, Racism, and Italian-American Crimefighters, Part 1:

Columbo, the Untouchables, and Joe Pistone

This article appeared originally in the anthology Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs, and Gentlemen (2009), edited by Elwood Watson. I’m reprinting it here because I believe it has things to say about Italian-Americans, law enforcement, and race relations in the New York tri-state area that may shed some light on the cultural context of the killing of Eric Garner. Please keep in mind that the length of this essay requires that it be serialized. Try not to judge its contents too quickly but wait for the entire piece to be published online.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters,” protested [James] Bond. “They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves…. greaseballs who filled themselves up with pizza pie and beer all week and on Saturdays knocked off a garage or drug store so as to pay their way at the races.”

- Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever (1956)

As David Chase’s landmark HBO television series The Sopranos came to an end, select television critics proclaimed it “the greatest TV show of all time,” columnist Peggy Noonan called it “a masterpiece,” and – despite some dissatisfaction with the open-ended finale – there was great public mourning over the passing of the gritty crime soap opera. However, a solid contingent of Italian-Americans were just as glad to see yet one more mass-media portrayal of their people as degenerate Mafia killers fade into memory. Traditionally, American movies and television shows featuring those of Italian descent in “non-Mafia” roles are few and far between. The restaurant owners of Big Night and For Roseanna, the various fake Italians played by Chico Marx, and the military men in Crimson Tide, Band of Brothers, and From Here to Eternity are the exceptions that prove the rule. Fortunately, while Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky Balboa spent a brief stint as hired muscle for Italian loan sharks, he was too nice to break legs to collect on loans and quit the Mafia early in the first Rocky movie to become a professional boxer. In addition, a small-but-notable subset of Italian-American characters on film and television fight crime rather than commit crimes. Though not Italian-American himself, actor Peter Falk played the brilliantly intuitive homicide investigator Lt. Columbo in the 1968 telefilm Prescription Murder. He continued to play the character for decades afterward in a series of Columbo television movies, continuing to outsmart rich, establishment villains who underestimate his intelligence because his slovenly appearance tricks them into thinking that he is a poor, unintelligent, immigrant cop. Film and television followed up with further examples of noble Italian-American police officers, including Al Giardello, Yaphet Kotto’s half-Italian-American, half-African-American protagonist from Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-1999), space station security chief Michael Garibaldi in the science fiction series Babylon 5 (1993-1998), and portrayals of real-life Italian crime fighters in the movies Serpico (1973), The Untouchables (1987), Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story (2003), and Donnie Brasco (1997).

While all of these crime fighters are presented in a respectful light, and are shown exhibiting varying degrees of heroism, there is one Italian-American crime fighter who has all of the grotesque traits of a gangster from a Martin Scorsese film, while ostensibly acting on the side of the angels. The vigilante known as the Punisher is just as coarse, sexist, violent, and apish as any character from Goodfellas (1990), but he turns all of his anger and murderous impulses against his own people in the Mafia, hoping to sanitize the Italian-American community by killing every last gangster he can get his hands on. He is a character right out of a 1970s exploitation film like Dirty Harry (1971) or Death Wish (1974), but first appeared as an anti-hero in The Amazing Spider-Man comic books in 1974 before graduating to his own comic book and two feature films. It is the extreme example of the Punisher that I am most concerned with exploring here. I intend to place his actions and motivations in a broader context by comparing him to less exploitative portrayals of Italian law enforcement, especially Lt. Columbo and Joe Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco). Finally, I will examine where Italian-Americans are, in the 21st century, in their process of enculturation in American society and consider to what extent their position is mirrored by, and diverges from, the lives of Italian-Americans as represented on film and television up to this point.

As refreshing as it is to see Italian-Americans presented as upstanding citizens, and while many of these characters are well-written and superbly acted, a fascinating dramatic and sociological tension is created on any occasion when one of these Italian crime fighters is ordered to pursue an Italian criminal. In some ways, watching an Italian cop incarcerate an Italian criminal is a cathartic experience. It makes the average middle-class Italian hope that such a story dramatizes, symbolically, the fact that Italians no longer need to turn to crime in order to survive and thrive in America, and can put their underworld past behind them. On the other hand, the extent to which Italians still exist somewhat on the margins of American society makes one wonder if the Italian cop isn’t being too hard on one of his own. After all, despite the fact that many members of other disenfranchised groups certainly have even less access to the so-called “American Dream,” Italians do not have the same job opportunities as the individuals who comprise the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant community that still thinks of itself as the rightfully privileged American mainstream. If such is the case, then is an Italian crime fighter who arrests and/or kills Italian criminals some kind of Italian “Uncle Tom?” The issue comes up time and again in crime dramas featuring Italians, and is at its most compelling in stories featuring the Untouchables, Donnie Brasco, Columbo, and the Punisher.

One of the first notable real-life Italian crime fighters is Frank Basile, a man who understood underworld culture and joined Eliot Ness’ squad of Untouchables during the Prohibition era to help bring down the empire Al Capone built on illegal alcohol trafficking. While Ness and Oscar Fraley do not do much to develop Basile’s character in their book-length account of the mob war, they express admiration for Basile and terrible anger at Capone for ordering Basile’s murder. Presumably, Capone targeted Basile for assassination because he was angry that Basile worked against his own people. Capone may have also felt it would be easier to get away with killing a mere Italian than a member of the U.S. Treasury Department (although he would later try to kill Ness as well). Basile is not widely remembered by the American public, and is hardly a household name, but he was the inspiration for Andy Garcia’s character in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). In the film, Garcia is a dedicated member of the team who had attempted to distance himself from Italian criminals, and from his Italian heritage, by changing his name from Giuseppe Petri to George Stone. Sean Connery’s character, Irish cop Jim Malone, admits to having some prejudices against Italians, and calls Capone’s men Dagos and WOPs, but admonishes Stone for changing his name, and insists on affectionately calling him Giuseppe. Stone, thankfully, is more fortunate than the real-life inspiration for his character and survives to see Capone jailed for tax evasion.

Joseph D. Pistone, an American of Sicilian extraction and another real-life crime fighter, helped bring down New York’s Bonanno crime family by operating undercover as one of their number for six years during the late 1970s. Pistone’s book Donnie Brasco, named after the alias he assumed while working undercover, inspired the Johnny Depp vehicle Donnie Brasco (1997), the independent film 10th & Wolf (2006), several fiction novels featuring the further adventures of Donnie Brasco, and the short-lived television series Falcone. Consequently, Pistone has become as much of a folk hero in the annals of crime drama as he is a real person, prompting New York Post entertainment critic Linda Stasi to complain of his ubiquitous presence. In the film Donnie Brasco, Depp plays Pistone as a figure who spies upon his fellow Italians with great reluctance. He relates strongly to mob culture and is in danger of embracing the gangster personality. He feels like a Judas figure when he betrays his mobster friend “Lefty” Ruggiero. He also butts heads with his “white,” establishment superiors in the FBI. However, the Joe Pistone in the book Donnie Brasco is vastly different from the one in the film. Pistone’s own written account of his feelings – both at the time he was undercover and since – seems far less conflicted. In fact, Pistone appears almost detached in his attitude towards the two hundred criminals that were indicted for crimes based on evidence that he gathered. Aside from voicing disapproval of their lifestyle, their corrupting influence, and their lack of intelligence, Pistone claims to have felt neither malice nor great sympathy for those he spied on. At the conclusion of Donnie Brasco, he writes:

People wanted to know whether I felt I was on a mission to clean out the Mafia because I’m Italian-American.

I didn’t carry out the mission on behalf of upstanding Italian-Americans. I wasn’t an ethnic policeman…. I would have accepted any undercover assignment against any group the FBI targeted.

I am proud about how it turned out, however.

Italian-Americans have told me they are proud that I had the courage to do it and that I showed the nation that not all Italians side with the Mafia….

Now we know the Mafia is not invincible.

It is also clear that the Mafia preys on Italians as well as other people….

On the other hand, some people asked, “How could you have done it to other Italians?”

I don’t feel that way. I busted a group of people involved in illegal activities.

Not viewing the probe from an ethnic point of view was important for keeping proper perspective. Another reason the investigation was successful was that I knew, no matter what I did, that I was not going to reform anybody in or around the Mafia, that the people I was getting close to were going to lie, steal, cheat, and murder whether I was there or not. My goal was to gather evidence for later prosecutions. I was not a social worker (407-408).

Pistone likes the film adaptation of his book very much, and has not, to my knowledge, voiced objections to Depp’s portrayal of him as more conflicted than he lets on in the book. It is possible that both portrayals of Pistone are, to an extent, true. However, they are almost irreconcilably different, and represent two different, believable reactions for someone in Pistone’s position to have. The Pistone in the film sees what he is doing as a crime against his own people and feels guilty for it, while the Pistone of the book sees the case in terms of law-breakers versus law abiders and feels no such conflict. Both reactions are fascinating.

Unlike Pistone, Lt. Columbo only infrequently found himself investigating Italian criminals. An evil vineyard owner and wine connoisseur played by Donald Pleasance in Any Old Port in a Storm (1973) springs to mind as a rare Italian adversary. However, Columbo’s Italian heritage has been mentioned repeatedly during the course of the series, and is often the subject of light-hearted humor. One of the most memorable conversations in the history of the show takes place between Columbo and his Italian-American dentist, Dr. Perenchino, in the story Columbo: Candidate for Crime (1973). As Perechino examines Columbo’s wisdom teeth and listens to opera playing on the radio, he launches into a monologue about anti-Italian prejudice in America.

Dr. Perenchino: You’re Italian, lieutenant. I’m Italian. Cavelli is Italian. You’re a cop. I’m a dentist. Cavelli’s a tenor. None of us is Mafia. You know any Italians that are Mafia? Any Italians in your family Mafia? Any Italians in the police force Mafia?

[Columbo grunts and shakes his head as if to respond ‘no’ to all of the above.]

Ah, when people talk about Italians, do they think cops, dentists, tenors?  The Pope, not even?  The Pope is Italian, ain’t he?  They think…they think Mafiosa, Mafiosa, Mafiosa.

At the time the episode was broadcast, the Pope was Italian: Pope Paul VI. The script (written by Irving Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman, Roland Kibbee, and Dean Hargrove from a story by Larry Cohen) involved a Senatorial hopeful (played by Jackie Cooper), killing his controlling campaign manager and blaming the death on members of the underworld that he has sworn to bring down. Amusingly, when Dr. Perenchino hears on the radio that the famous public figure was killed, he predicts that the real killer will likely be a rich white guy who tries to pin it on the Mafia. As Columbo leaves the dentist’s office to begin his investigation, Perenchino says, “You are an Italian cop. No matter who you catch for this murder, they’re still gonna say it’s the Mafia and that you’re covering for them…. Take my advice, lieutenant, change your name!”

Columbo has no comment. Nor does he change his name. He merely proceeds to prove that the senator was the killer and makes a successful arrest at the end of the episode. Interestingly enough, Perenchino is convinced that, as an Italian-American on the police force, Columbo is in constant danger of becoming a victim of his own ethnicity, but the series never presents Columbo’s status on the force, or his reputation, as being threatened by his class or culture. In fact, Columbo’s entire modus operandi works because he follows Sun Tzu’s dictum, “Appear strong when you are weak and weak when you are strong.” He appears weak, but his position in the fabric of the criminal justice system, and in American society, is secure. He is able to fool his criminal adversaries into underestimating him by pretending to be on the margins of society when, in actuality, he commands the respect of his superiors and the power to jail white-color criminals who, in the real world, oftentimes would be beyond the reach of a mere working-class homicide investigator. In fact, Columbo is unassailable, even when wealthy murderers, like the psychiatrist played by Gene Barry in Prescription Murder, are friends with the district attorney, or use bribes or threats to shake Columbo off their trail. But Columbo is never taken off the case, and never faces an opponent too rich or politically powerful to buy his way to freedom. Indeed, this almost counterintuitive consistency of outcome makes some viewers wonder if Columbo is secretly wealthy himself, has some kind of politically invincible ally, or if his whole persona as a frumpy, poor, cop is a put-on and he’s not even really Italian but secretly some rich, white guy himself who only pretends to drive a broken-down car and wear a hand-me-down raincoat when he’s off-duty.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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1 Comment

  1. reynard says:

    I have now read all four parts, which proved to be a poor use of time regardless of the snow day. What, exactly, was the point of this essay? When has the Punisher ever attempted to come across as a role model? Frank Castle (or Francis Castiglione to keep to what I’ll charitably refer to as your theme) is a truly damaged man, not the Patron Saint of those of us who live in the New York area and know where Fordham Road is. Also, as with most of the posts on this site, you need an editor (both copy and content).

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