Anatomy of a ‘Godfather’ insult

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You may have seen that CNN anchor and famous Italian American Chris Cuomo got angry this week when someone likened him to Fredo, the wimpy and back-stabbing brother in "The Godfather."

He said that people “from the right call me Fredo,” and “they use it as an Italian aspersion.” He also compared the comparison to “the N-word,” a term used to demean people with ancestors brought to this country as chattel as opposed to a controversial character  from an amazing movie.

Eventually, the muscular journalist talked about throwing the guy down some stairs and other language that I’d have to translate from Italian American to English to share here.

It is my last-name-bound-duty to direct your attention to this incident, not the most important thing happening in New York but at least one hot enough to draw the Twitter attention of Donald Trump.

Cuomo, of course, is the brother of Gov. Andrew and the son of Gov. Mario. The concept of a reference to "The Godfather" being like an ethnic slur dates to an earlier era in American politics, when politicians like Mario Cuomo actually were slandered due to perceived connections to the Mafia.

Various investigative and crime reporters dug into Mario’s background but found him clean. That was only after years of unfair insinuations and slights, including ugly rumors and not being able to get a job at certain law firms. Mario felt so strongly about the odious gangster stuff that he supposedly never watched "The Godfather" until he was 81 (“maybe this thing was a masterpiece,” he said then). And according to a 1990 The Post-Standard article, he even crossed party lines to move beyond the slurs, encouraging mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani to run: “You’ve got to fight that stereotype,” he had said.

I called Sal Albanese, longtime Brooklyn Councilman and former Democratic mayoral candidate who also has a vowel at the end of his name, to ask about the Fredo flap. He remembers being asked whether he was “part of the mob” when he went to college upstate. As an associate at a financial firm, colleagues would say things like “don’t mess with Sal, he’s involved with ‘The Sopranos.’”

In an email, former GOP Sen. Al D’Amato recalled encountering bigotry after passing the bar and trying to get a law job decades ago.

“So while ‘Fredo’ may not have the power of some of the words used by bigots, there is no question it has become a tool of the bigot, designed to demean and insult one’s Italian character,” he wrote.

“I would not have allowed the insult to go unanswered either and I suspect my friends would have intervened to ensure my words weren’t just the prelude to a more memorable exchange.”

It may be that there is a generational issue at play.

Republican Staten Island City Councilman Joe Borelli, 37, says that where he grew up on the South Shore of Staten Island, “quoting ‘The Godfather’ was like reciting scripture.” It was “not a racial slur whatsoever.”

These days there are plenty of Italian Americans doing decent things, and the mob aspersions can be more of a joke or a weird mark of pride (harrowing violence: awesome!).

The other way to read the Fredo insult, of course, is to remember that Fredo is “the embodiment of the dumb ne’er do well brother,” notes Borelli.

You should seriously just watch the movie, but in case you haven’t, the important details are that Fredo gets passed over for his younger brother as powerful head of the family. He ultimately betrays said brother and gets assassinated on a fishing boat.

Gov. Cuomo and his younger, better-looking brother seem to have a fairly competitive relationship, and nobody wants to seem like the runt of the family. A CNN spokesman called the insult a "setup," and Chris eventually apologized for losing his temper.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Fredo because he’s brought to life by Italian American acting great John Cazale, who was Meryl Streep’s boyfriend and of whom Al Pacino said, “I learned more about acting from John than anybody.”

Plus, for all the violence and Corleone family strife and betrayals, it’s Fredo who has one of the nicest brotherly moments in the movie series, getting up from the holy Italian American dinner table to congratulate his brother Michael for joining the armed forces, a choice the other family members don’t respect.

I took the Fredo thing to my own Italian American younger brother, a guy who once bought a Godfather-themed T-shirt on a family trip to Sicily. “You have to be a special kind of insecure to get that upset about being called Fredo,” he said. “Just really hurting the Italian brand.”

Mark Chiusano