Sept. 8, 2006 -- Where do we get our ideas about what groups of people are like? We learn from our parents and friends, of course, but Hollywood has a big influence too.
Most Italian Americans have nothing to do with organized crime. But you wouldn't know that watching movies and TV shows like "The Godfather," "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos." Those depictions of Italians as gangsters anger Italian activist groups like the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA). Dona De Sanctis, OSIA's Deputy Executive Director says, Italians are "among the few ethnic minorities that it's still okay to make fun of, and that's not right."
Beginning in the silent film era, blacks were mainly portrayed by Hollywood as fools and servants. But movie roles have changed for blacks. Since the 1971 movie "Shaft," starring Richard Roundtree as a private eye, blacks have played most every type of humanity.
But that's less true for other ethnic groups. On the ABC show "Lost," Daniel Dae Kim kissed a woman. Have you ever seen an Asian actor do that?
Kim told 20/20 he'd played at least fifty roles on television and had never gotten to kiss a woman on-screen until "Lost." Kim says Hollywood stereotypes Asian American actors, relegating them to certain roles. "We've been portrayed as inscrutable villains and asexualized kind of eunuchs," Kim says. "Even Jackie Chan in his movies rarely gets to kiss his female lead."
B.D. Wong of "Law & Order SVU," a winner of Broadway's Tony award, is still waiting for his first on-screen kiss. Wong says he's constantly cast as a doctor.
"I played a doctor on Sesame Street. I played a doctor in the film 'Jurassic Park.' I play a doctor on Law & Order Special Victims Unit."
"It's beyond weird," he told me. "It's wrong … and it makes me feel somehow like I'm not cute, which pisses me off."
Growing up, Wong saw white actors playing Asian parts in what they call "yellowface." In "Breakfast at Tiffany's" the fussy Japanese landlord was Mickey Rooney, which he played with a broadly exaggerated Japanese accent while wearing thick round glasses and fake buck teeth. Some Asians say these images made them hate themselves. "I wanted to be Matthew Broderick," Wong says. "If you could have given me $150,000 and told me it was possible, I would have had that operation."
That's because Broderick was cool … while Asians were not.
Maybe Asian Americans should protest. Arab American groups, sensitive that they're portrayed too often as terrorists, have picketed theaters and persuaded nervous producers to cast them differently. Hollywood used to make lots of movies about Arab terrorists. But since September 11th, Arabs are much less likely to be cast as terrorists. The Tom Clancy best seller "The Sum of All Fears" is about Palestinian terrorists, but when the movie came out, the bad guys had become neo-Nazis.
Now some Italian groups are complaining. In 2004, Italy planned to award Robert De Niro honorary citizenship, but then De Niro voiced the role of gangster Don Lino in the cartoon "Shark Tale," using language peppered with Italian expressions like "agita."Advocacy groups complained, and Italy cancelled its citizenship ceremony.
That's just silly, says Vincent Pastore, who played a mobster on "The Sopranos." Pastore told 20/20, "Italian people are gangsters. That's like saying all black people are slaves. Italian people are gangsters? It's just bizarre."
Italian American actor/comedian Pat Cooper says, "The activists don't know what they're talking about."
Cooper played one of Robert De Niro's made men in the film "Analyze This" and says groups like Order Sons of Italy are wrong--mob movies don't make people think Italians are gangsters. He says Hollywood favors Italian gangsters "because we're better gangsters ... But that doesn't mean all Italians are gangsters and all Italians are bad, that's ridiculous."
OSIA's De Sanctis disagrees. "I have to say to people like Pat Cooper … 'I'm sorry, your portrayals are influencing public opinion.' "
De Sanctis points out "The popularity of a stereotype doesn't justify it ... Cowboy and Indian movies were wildly popular for generations. But that doesn't make the stereotype right."
Pat Cooper responds, "It's an art form, it's a movie! How come nobody comes over to me and says, 'You know, you're making fun of the Italians'? I say, we got a sense of humor, I'm so proud that I'm the first one to let people know we know how to laugh."
For more information, please refer to the sources below, who helped with research for this story:
Show business biographer James Robert Parish, author of "The Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups in Hollywood" (jamesrobertparish.com).