When I was growing up in an ethnic New York neighborhood, there was a kind of a rough equivalence between Italians and Jews. Yes, one was Catholic and the other, well, Jewish, but the cultures had a lot in common, including dreams of upward mobility, a strongly connected family, a powerful religious bond within the community, assertive mothers (very, very assertive mothers), and a similar kind of coarse sardonic outsider humor – the kind of humor that develops in ghetto cultures. I could make this list a lot longer, but you get the idea.
And both cultures offered up a kind of alternate leading man, the one who isn’t Gary Cooper or George Clooney or Cary Grant or Hugh Grant – or any kind of Grant. The Italians had the young Al Pacino, we Jews had the young Dustin Hoffman. Intrepid hero as plucky outsider – not the big square jawed football captain from an old American family, but the little guy, the one who could win anyway, in spite of being up from the streets, could somehow get the girl through determination and grit and force of sheer will.
It made perfect sense that Paul Newman, a Jew, would play Rocky Graziano, an Italian. It didn’t matter – he was still the underdog, sinuous and seething with class resentment and unresolved neurosis, working his way up out of the immigrant ghetto. Everyone rooted for him, and all the girls swooned.
But even as a kid I knew there wasn’t any real parity here. The Italians had a kind of sexy cool on their side, where we Jews just had a kind of outsider energy, hovering between frantic/angry and hangdog/rueful. After all, they had Dean Martin and we had Jerry Lewis. They have the older Al Pacino, while we have the older Dustin Hoffman (ouch).
They could turn out a young Rocky Balboa without batting an eye, whereas our rebels were more like Alan Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce. Astonishing, brilliant, world-changing, but not the guy who goes home with the gal.
I’m not talking about reality here – I’m talking about cultural perception. After all, Paul Newman was actually Jewish, as were Paul Muni, Kirk Douglas, John Garfield, Tony Curtis, and many others (and the same goes for the endless list of Jewish female movie stars – there is no shortage of real-life sexy Jews on the Hollywood roster). But Tony Curtis was cast to play Italian, because he was dark eyed and sexy. The game was rigged.
All of this came home to me recently when I realized that Peter Petrelli – the brooding and impossibly sexy male star of the TV series “Heroes” – is not only Italian, but “post-ethnically Italian”. In other words, his entire family, from his U.S. Senator brother to his billionaire alpha-male dad to his elegant patrician mother, have clearly already risen to the top of the American social heap.
And as I watched the show, I began to realize that something was going on here. Peter Petrelli is the archetypical Prince. Not the ethnic immigrant gosh-I-hope-he-makes-it prince, but the real deal. As in Prince Hal, Aragorn, Simba the White Lion, Robert Redford.
Something fundamental has happened. A young Italian American guy is now being sold as the ultimate potential mate – American royalty – the guy who will usher some lucky gal into the highest caste gene pool.
I don’t think an HBO miniseries will be developing this kind of treatment any time soon for the Shapiros or the Goldsteins.