I’ve written previously about Kenosha, the Wisconsin city of 100,000 located at the northernmost edge of the Chicago metro area, and of its Southern Italian immigrant history. The quiet Rust Belt town merits a second posting on this blog, and it’s not to talk about its fictional polka history or its real-life League Of Their Own story. This time we’re going to talk about Kenosha as the birthplace of a considerable number (for a place its size) of Italian-American screen actors. But before we delve into Italian-Americans, there’s an elephant in the room.
While on the subject it’s important to note that Kenosha was the birthplace of Orson Welles, a titan and legend in motion pictures during his lifetime and today. Welles (born 1915) was not Italian; his surname is probably English and his American bloodlines predate the immigration flood of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also moved to Chicago at age five (with his parents, naturally) and seemed bitter about his birth town later in life. That may have had something to do with his mother dying, his father being an alcoholic, and his sister running away from home before he turned ten. It sounds like Welles’ childhood was not exactly Rockwellesque. In any case, Welles went on to be one of the biggest (ha ha) Hollywood stars of his or any era, most famous for his tour de force Citizen Kane, as well as having voiced the radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds that terrified all those listeners. He rounded out his career voicing a robot on the animated Transformers movie in the 80s. So while he wasn’t Italian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him in a post like this, especially for the Transformers thing.
He was never the household name that Welles became, but Don Ameche (born 1908) had a steady if not spectacular film career spanning nearly 60 years. Ameche was dashingly handsome even into his golden years, and as a young man played the titular role in The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell as well as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. He is probably more recognizable to younger viewers for his roles in 80s films Trading Places and Cocoon.
Ameche’s brother Jim Ameche (born 1915 in Kenosha as well) had a long career on the radio in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and New York. Jim did manage to turn in a screen role in 1957 in The Story Of Mankind as – coincidentally I suppose – Alexander Graham Bell.
On a tangential note, Don and Jim were cousins of Alan “The Horse” Ameche, a college and professional football star. Alan was born in Kenosha in 1933 and won the Heisman Trophy while a tailback at the University of Wisconsin. I realize football isn’t acting, but I never miss an occasion to discuss it, and it is a form of dramatic entertainment played out on a screen for millions of viewers. In fact “The Savage Ballet” is often more entertaining than a scripted film, as when Ameche scored the winning touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in their 1958 NFL Championship win over the New York Giants. But I digress.
It’s also important to note that “Ameche” is a stage name and a modification of “Amici.” Don Ameche was born Dominic Amici, and his father Felice Amici was born in Montemonaco in the Marche region, pretty far north compared to most immigrants in his day. Supposedly Felice Amici was a bartender, and who wouldn’t want to have a beer and shoot the breeze with a guy named Felice Amici? Just by his name he sounds like a happy-go-lucky fella, the kind of barkeep who’d comp you by round three.
If you’ve ever watched a Garry Marshall-produced sitcom or a frozen dinner commercial, you know doubt recognize the distinct mug of Al Molinaro, born in 1919 and still truckin’ at age 94. Molinaro first became a steady presence in America’s living rooms in the early 70s, as Murray the Cop on the TV version of The Odd Couple. A few years later his fame spread when he took on the role of Al Delvecchio, owner of Arnold’s Diner on Happy Days. By its fourth season, Happy Days (which was set in Milwaukee) would be the number one rated show in the country. That in and of itself is a curious fact and probably says something about what options existed on TV in 1976. In any case the show lasted eleven seasons, and Molinaro’s “Al” joined a pantheon of characters known on a first-name basis by most Americans – Richie, Potsy, Ralph, Fonzie, Joanie, and yes, Chachi. (Most Americans probably didn’t and still don’t know that many Supreme Court justices by name.) Molinaro reprised his Delvecchio role in 1994 for a memorable Weezer music video for its song, “Buddy Holly,” which I recommend you watch. And of course he was also the face of On-Cor frozen meals for many years. On the subject of Kenosha, Molinaro has been friendlier than Orson Welles, once remarking, “I love that town; I love it. If it wasn’t that I left it for show business, I’d still be there today.”
Daniel J. Travanti (born 1940) must be a real pro’s pro, because for a good quarter century starting in 1958 he turned up on just about every TV show you could now find in the TV Land library: The Patty Duke Show, Route 66, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Mod Squad, Kojak, the list goes on and on. It wasn’t until he reached the mature age of 43 that Travanti really broke out, for his role as John Walsh in the TV movie Adam. The gripping, based-on-a-true-story drama of the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh caught the viewing public’s attention and netted Travanti an Emmy nomination (and a return to the role in its sequel). It was a coup for Travanti in an era when made-for-TV “Movies of the Week” and dramatic miniseries meant big ratings and made water cooler conversations the day after.
On the heels of Adam, Travanti landed the role of Captain Frank Furillo on NBC’s Hill Street Blues. Today we’re used to television reviewers and bloggers singing hosannas for whichever is the latest acclaimed TV drama (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.). Hill Street Blues is one of the grandfathers of the “critically acclaimed” drama. Compared with its campier cop show predecessors, Blues was novel in its grittiness, tackling racial and sexual issues with a squalid urban landscape as a backdrop. Travanti’s police captain was a recovering alcoholic who attended AA meetings on screen from time to time, a reflection of Travanti’s own personal battles with booze. Critics and Emmy voters couldn’t get enough of it, but viewers could, and the show never cracked Nielsen’s top 20 in spite of its seven-year run. As for Travanti, he is still acting at 74, including a role on Starz’s series Boss.
The Other Tomei
Like Travanti, Concetta Tomei (born 1945 – no relation to Marisa) has had a prolific career, mostly on television. Unlike her fellow Kenoshan and contemporary, Tomei has yet to land that one signature lead role that would put her on the cover/main page of whatever is today’s equivalent of TV Guide. No matter, though, as Tomei has appeared in some of the most popular and acclaimed programs in the medium. She’s had recurring roles on Falcon Crest, China Beach, L.A. Law, Picket Fences, and Providence. She could most recently be found on USA Network’s Necessary Roughness.
Don’t Make Him Angry
Of course, Mark Ruffalo‘s body of work deserves more than to be boiled down to a Bill Bixby catchphrase. But since superhero movies continue to be the, er, rage, it bears mentioning that Ruffalo is currently recognizable as mild-mannered Bruce Banner, alter ego of the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers movies. Before the gamma radiation got to him, Ruffalo’s career was already off to a flying start, with roles in respected and popular films such as You Can Count On Me, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Zodiac, and The Kids Are All Right.
Ruffalo was born in 1967 and grew up in Kenosha and Virginia. Like the name Molinaro, Ruffalo (or Ruffolo) is a surname concentrated heavily in the Italian South, and mostly Calabria, according to this online map of Italian surnames. In fact, the Ruffolo surname (the name has been spelled or misspelled a few ways in America) is especially prevalent in the Cosenza area, and was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. I’m just throwing it out there that we could be distant cousins, in case Mark ever wants to share a future Oscar with me, or better yet, a percentage of his earnings.
I’m squeezing stand up comic Jeff Cesario (born 1953) into this mix, since he’s appeared on most of the big late night shows (Carson, Leno, Letterman, Conan, Ferguson), and written for the 90s HBO classic The Larry Sanders Show and later Dennis Miller Live. Most recently he was co-Executive Producer of FX’s Brand X With Russell Brand. That, and having dabbled in both art forms at the extreme amateur level, I believe stand up comedy is much, much more difficult than acting. I’d like to see Orson Welles try that.