More Than Meatballs and Mobsters | Our Town | Chicago Reader

More Than Meatballs and Mobsters 

The Italians Nobody Knows

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By Frank Melcori

If you met Mike Bacarella, you'd understand why he's a casting director's dream. A good actor, he looks the part of a hefty, blue-collar, slap-you-on-the-back Chicago guy. In short, he makes a perfect gangster. But after more than a decade of playing thugs in movies and television, Bacarella decided he'd had enough. Slowly, perhaps unconsciously, he began to see himself as an Italian-American.

While growing up on the west side, he says, "being an Italian was never an issue, either with my friends or with my family. We just played and did our thing. Then in 1959 the television series The Untouchables came out. Along with that the whole Sal Mineo disturbed Italian youth began to take hold...you know, the dago T-shirt and the slicked back hair. The Kefauver hearings on organized crime were going on and it was big news. All of a sudden it was like 'the bad Italian people.' I have to tell you it was like being kicked in the stomach to be singled out because of your name. I remember the school bully was particularly vehement. Even among adults, the teachers, you could feel a change in them toward us. They looked at us and saw us growing into Sal Mineo troubled Italian delinquents.

"Even after I joined the police force, I found this Italian thing. That really surprised me. I mean, what do you do with that?"

Bacarella became a Chicago police officer in 1969, and for the next three years he walked a beat at night while attending classes during the day at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, where he met his wife, Lois. Encouraged by her support he quit the police force to pursue his dream of working in motion pictures. The pair moved to Los Angeles, and Bacarella made the rounds for seven months before finally being taken on as a makeup man at NBC. He got a taste of backstage life, shooting the breeze with the likes of Sid Caesar, John Travolta, and Jonathan Winters, and he made friends with a small group of makeup and special-effects artists. But Hollywood began to bother him--he saw it feeding off stereotypes.

"Hollywood is the India of the United States--there's a tremendous caste system. As soon as you open your mouth, they type you. You are this type, so a lot of people spend a lot of time and money trying to become something else, something that they're not. They begin living in the world according to Hollywood.

"All of this Italian business was slowly building up in my own head. When I eventually started to act, to go out on casting calls, I found that when you play to the stereotype you begin to eliminate yourself from the possibility of playing something else. Myself and another actor get a callback for a role and we go read for it, for instance. If I have a reputation for playing gangsters, the other guy doesn't, and the role we're reading for is not a gangster, I won't get the part. I've been eliminated. I dug my own grave. What else could I have expected?"

While in Los Angeles, Bacarella took some acting classes, but he found the experience unrewarding. Finally he got a break--he was offered an apprenticeship as a makeup artist for movies. But he ended up turning the job down because he and his wife wanted to return to Chicago. After they moved home in the fall of 1976 Bacarella found work doing makeup for Joe Sedelmaier commercials, and he went back to school, enrolling in filmmaking courses at Columbia College. Gradually he began to get hired as an actor in commercials. Then came movies. He stood in as John Belushi's double in The Blues Brothers and was soon cast in other films, often playing a hoodlum. Despite his distaste for mobster roles, Bacarella admits he liked being in demand and working with great actors like Robert De Niro. He won parts in The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Johnny Dangerously, and Opportunity Knocks. "I did a lot of these roles, a lot of these stereotypes. I won't deny it. I mean, I had my dreams."

But success left a bad taste. "I began to realize what I was doing to myself, and how I was affecting others around me...because you do, you know. Responsibility is part of being an artist. If you are going to say something, you must make sure it is true."

He finally drew the line in 1992, when The Untouchables TV series began shooting in Chicago. "That series brought in a lot of money for a lot of people. We all needed it, but...I just couldn't see myself doing that type of thing anymore. I had to start saying no because it was all I was ever going to do. An agent called and asked me to audition for the role of a fat Jewish gangster. I told her no, that I wasn't going to do that role and that I didn't want to be considered for that type of role. I lost a lot of work, I know, because of that decision. What can I say? I had to take a stand."

Bacarella started working on a screenplay, called Zouaves, about Italians fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War--something that he learned had actually happened. "I began to collect anything I could find about Italians or Italians in American history. A group of us Italian-American actors, meanwhile, approached the Screen Actors Guild, which is the film union, and we asked if we could form the Italian-American Actors Committee. Our purpose was to reeducate all the Italian-American actors, writers, and directors working in our business. We wanted to change the usual portrayals. B'nai B'rith worked with us to distribute a videotape they produced in 1976 on Italians in American history. We also distributed a book by Richard Capozzola called Five Centuries of Italian-American History. Imagine that! Five hundred years and all Hollywood can do is Casino."

Looking to "balance the scales," Bacarella says, he set out to "retrieve this forgotten history. Our forefathers died here too. And I'll tell you what--I recommend every ethnic group to do the same. Then we can have a real American history. We can really be true to our belief that this is a country for all people because all people help make it."

Out of this search came Bacarella's first book, Lincoln's Foreign Legion, the 39th New York Infantry, the Garibaldi Guard, which was put out by White Mane Publishing last October. "Garibaldi led the fight for Italian unity, and in 1860 Italy became a unified country for the first time...that same year Lincoln was elected and then the Civil War began. Many of the men who fought with Garibaldi were exiles, and they made their way to this country and into the Civil War. Not just Italians, mind you, but Swiss, Jews, Spanish, Poles, Russians...you name them, and they were there. That regiment, the 39th New York Infantry, was probably the first glimpse of what America was to become.

"I had to take whatever people said about them and match it to the events of that time. When you find the pieces of a puzzle like this and you assemble them, I tell you, it gave me a greater thrill than anything I've done in the motion picture business. People read this book, see what I've done, and they react in a positive way. I'm telling you, people want to know this stuff. There are things throughout American history that people have never heard of....For me the thrill of knowing we were there...ah, the door of American history has to be opened. We can't rely on the media. It was far easier to write this book and get it published than it was to sell one lousy script in Hollywood. Hollywood says, 'Oh we know what the people want.' Well maybe they don't. Look at the Oscars this past year. Small stories and independent films carried the day. That's what people want."

Bacarella tried to find public forums for himself and his friends to present their arguments, yet there were no takers. "We tried everyone...Oprah, Donahue. We were told it wasn't important enough. Not an issue. They can bring on the Klan, skinheads, whatever. But not us. Meanwhile Hollywood just keeps cranking out the same garbage it always has about Italian-Americans in this country."

Bacarella is currently finishing his second book, 101 Years of Italians in Motion Pictures, a history of Italian actors in the American film industry. "It is a study of an ethnic group working in one industry over an extended period of time. It chronicles, in alphabetical order, the names of all these Italian actors and the work they did. A picture of us has been painted by Hollywood here, someone else's view of who we are. Why did all these guys do it? They did it because they were actors. They wanted to express themselves as artists, but the kind of roles they found put them into a category called Italian-American. We are not Italians, really, we are Americans. We were raised as Americans. I love this country. I do. I believe in what it stands for. There's no better country. If we can drop the stereotypes, the country will become much stronger. Italian-Americans, when they learn who they really are and were, then they too will be more sympathetic to those other minorities whose stories have been distorted. It's time to stop pointing. Time to stop singling out.

"You know, there are plaques on the Michigan Avenue Bridge honoring the voyageurs who came to this part of the country. The names read Marquette, La Salle, Jolliet, and de Tonti. The French called him Henri de Tonti, but his real name was Enrico Tonti. That's right--Enrico Tonti came here from Naples and was the first military governor of Illinois. His nephew was the first settler at the post of Chicago prior to the coming of DuSable."

Really? I didn't know that.

"That's my point!" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Bacarella photo by Randy Tunnell.

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