Tom Santopietro was 18 years old in 1972, when he saw the movie The Godfather in a theater in his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. “I saw the movie for the first time with my parents,” recalls the author. “I have this very distinct memory of my father and I being wrapped up in it, and my mother leaning over and asking me, ‘How much longer is this?’”
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Santopietro’s mother, Nancy Edge Parker, was of English descent, and, his father, Olindo Oreste Santopietro, was Italian. His grandparents Orazio Santopietro and Maria Victoria Valleta immigrated to the United States from southern Italy in the early 1900s. But it was seeing The Godfather trilogy that ultimately awakened Santopietro to his Italian roots and the immigrant experience.
In his new book, The Godfather Effect, Santopietro looks at how the film saga portrays Italian-Americans and what that has meant for him, the film industry and the country.
How did the idea for this book—part memoir, part study of The Godfather films—form?
Like millions of other people around the world, I have been obsessed by The Godfather trilogy. I wanted to write about that. And, then, as I started writing about the films, I realized that I also wanted to write about other films depicting Italian-Americans and how horrible the stereotypes were. That made me start thinking about the journey that immigrants had made coming to America, the whys behind the journey and really the history of the mob. I started thinking about my own life, and I thought, I want to make this, in part, a memoir because I am half-Italian and half-English. There was a pull, because I had a very Italian name growing up in a very Anglo world.
When I saw The Godfather: Part II, and when ten minutes into the film there is the image of the young Vito on board the ship coming to America and passing by the Statue of Liberty, all of a sudden the light bulb went off. That image brought home to me my grandfather’s journey and how brave, at age 13, he was arriving here alone. At age 13, I was in a private school running around wearing my uniform and school tie, so removed from his experience. So it became not just a movie I loved as a movie lover, but a very personal depiction of the American journey for me.
How would you define the “Godfather effect”?
The film changed Hollywood because it finally changed the way Italians were depicted on film. It made Italians seem like more fully realized people and not stereotypes. It was a film in Hollywood made by Italians about Italians. Previously, it had not been Italians making the mobster films featuring Italian gangsters.
I feel it helped Italianize American culture. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about Don Corleone and making jokes about, “I am going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” I think it helped people see that in this depiction of Italian-Americans was a reflection of their own immigrant experience, whether they were Irish or Jews from Eastern Europe. They found that common ground.
Then, of course, it changed me because when I saw what I felt was my grandfather on that ship coming to America, it was as if I was fully embracing my Italian-ness. I had never really felt Italian until then.