John Travolta

Perry Como
Television and the positive impact of Italian Americans.

The depiction of Italian Americans on television is part of an on-going debate between those who lament the pre-occupation with criminal association to others who confess not to be offended by the medium's portrayal of the group, regarding it an aspect of entertainment that otherwise does not impact their lives. Obviously when dealing with reactions to the medium, subjectivity is so conspicuous that it defies common consensus. While this is not the place to examine the subject in depth, mention must be made of efforts at scientific study that can be adduced to render observations and conclusions that confirm a prevailing negative image. Although quantitatively in the minority, there have been a number of television shows that have emphasized more positive images regarding the fight against crime. Thus in the 1970s shows like the long-running "Colombo" followed the adventures of a keen-eyed Italian American detective, while others such as "Johnny Staccato," "Toma," "Petrocelli," of much briefer life spans portrayed Italian Americans on the right side of the law. In the 1980s "Hill Street Blues," in which Italian American actor Daniel Travanti played the lead as a dedicated police captain, gained much credibility. From the 1950s to the 1980s Italian American characters have been part of television fare in countless situation comedies including "Life with Luigi," "Happy Days," " "Joe and Sons," and "McHale's Navy," with notables including John Travolta in "Welcome Back Kotter” and Danny DeVito in "Taxi." In the 1980s Tony Danza starred in "Who's The Boss?" while the 1990s produced continuing comedy favorites Ray Romano in "Everybody Loves Raymond" and Matt LeBlanc in “Friends.” Recently, Michael Badalucco has won acclaim for his role on “The Practice.” Italian Americans have been fixtures on many television variety shows. "The Jimmy Durante Show," for example, one of the earliest of this genre starred Jimmy Durante of vaudeville fame. Television viewers of the 1950s and 1960s also were familiar with "The Liberace Show," featuring the flamboyant pianist Wladziu Valentino Liberace, while Perry Como's longevity on NBC shows attested to his enormous popularity. Other Italian American show business people to have television shows included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Julius LaRosa, Dean Martin, Sonny Bono, and Liza Minelli. In addition, Italian Americans like Penny Marshall and Henry Mancini have been successful in the television medium as either producers or writers of music for show themes. It is impossible to be encyclopedic on the subject in an entry of this size, however, it can indeed be said that Italian Americans have had a profound effect in the development of television. Nevertheless, although Italian Americans or actors playing Italian American roles have been part of television's golden age, many in the ethnic community feel strongly that the medium has yet to truly balance negative representations with positive ones.

Danny DeVito
Matt LeBlanc

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