If You Want a Mobster Role, You Need to Go to Temple
Nobody who works in the industry endures more rejections than an actor. I should know. I’ve been an actor and comic for more than 40 years and have probably been turned down more times than a blanket. But as bad as these rejections have been, they don’t compare to what an ethnic actor goes through.
Years ago, I had an actor friend, John, who happened to be a Native American. We were having lunch one day when he said: “Howie, things are OK with me now. But when I first came out here back in the ‘40s, I couldn’t get a job. I went over to Republic studios. They were doing hundreds of westerns then. I figured I’m a cinch to get an Indian part.
“Sorry,” the casting director tells me. “You don’t look Indian enough.”
“I don’t look Indian enough? I happen to be a full-blooded Sioux!”
“So what? You still don’t look Indian enough.”
“So if I don’t look Indian enough, who does?”
“You heard me. We only use Italians for Indian parts. They look more Indian than the Indians.”
“Well, if Italians are doing Indian parts, maybe I could play an Italian.”
“No, we use other people for the Italian parts.”
“Jews. They play all Italian gangsters. Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield. All Jewish.”
John told the guy he didn’t understand.
“Look,” the Republic guy said, “Jews look more Italian than Italians. I was in Rome last summer. I didn’t see one Italian who looked how an Italian is supposed to look. They had blond hair, fair skin, high cheekbones.”
John said, “Howie, I asked the guy, ‘If Italians play Indians and Jews play Italians, then who plays Jews?’ He said, ‘WASPs. Who played David? Gregory Peck. Who played Charlton Heston’s mother in “Ben-Hur”? Martha Scott.’”
John pounded the guy’s desk and told him: “OK, Italians play Indians, Jews play Italians, WASPs play Jews. Let me play an Oriental. After all, Indians came over from Asia.”
He said the guy apologized. “White guys play Orientals. Who played Charlie Chan? Warner Oland. Who played Mr. Moto? Peter Lorre. Who played Chinese dames for years? Myrna Loy.”
Johnny seemed exhausted. The waiter came with the check. I paid. It was the least I could do. I asked him how he managed to stay in the business.
“I got the idea that if Italians are grabbing all the Indian parts, I would become Italian. I changed my name from John to Giovanni. I learned to think like them, dress like them, walk like them. I was ready. I went up for a part in the movie ‘Little Big Man,’ starring Dustin Hoffman.
“The casting guy asked me my name. I told him I was Giovanni and could play any Indian part he had. The guy gets up from his chair. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘Things have changed. We only use authentic Native Americans today . . . people like Iron Eyes Cody, Graham Greene, Chief Dan George. Now if you were a genuine Indian, I’d hire you on the spot.’”
John said he couldn’t take it. “I screamed at the guy, ‘But I’m a full-blooded Sioux. I am an authentic Indian. I am the realest Indian you’ll ever find.’”
He said the casting guy laughed in his face. “You actors,” he said. “You’ll say anything to get a part.”