From Al Capone and Vito Corleone to John Gotti and Tony Soprano, real-life and fictional mafiosos have captured the public imagination since the 1920s. Ruthless and violent, these men are nonetheless often seen to maintain their own personal brand of honor and decency. In this way, they are modern-day versions of the outlaw heroes of the Wild West, such as Jesse and Frank James or Billy the Kid. Gangsters were only a tiny percentage of the huge migration of Italians, primarily from the south of Italy, to America in the early 20th century. Still, “The Mafia” has become the primary pop culture expression of the Italian American identity–much to the dismay of many Italian Americans. This is due largely to the enduring influence of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Oscar-winning smash hit film “The Godfather” (based on Mario Puzo’s novel) and its reinvention of the gangster movie genre.

Early Gangsters on Film & TV

As the era of Prohibition gave way to the Great Depression, the first wave of gangster movies mirrored the growing anger and frustration of many Americans at their worsening economic conditions. In movies like “Little Caesar” (1931) with Edward G. Robinson, “The Public Enemy” (1931) with Jimmy Cagney and “Scarface” (1932) with Paul Muni, the main characters–all Italian Americans, some based on real life mobsters such as Capone–suffered the consequences of their law-breaking, but many audiences still identified with their willingness to go outside the bounds of the traditional system to make a living.

Did you know? In an interview filmed for the documentary "Under the Influence" (2003), Francis Ford Coppola said he saw "The Godfather" as a classic Shakespearean tale: the story of a king and his three sons. According to producer Robert Evans, Coppola also made his Mafia story a metaphor for capitalism.

After 1942, gangsters largely disappeared from the screen, as Nazis and monsters took the place of mobsters as Hollywood’s preferred villains. This began to change after 1950, when a Senate committee set up to investigate organized crime began holding public hearings. Thanks to the new medium of television, millions of Americans watched the testimony of real-life mobsters like Frank Costello (or more accurately, they watched Costello’s shaky hands–the only part of him shown by the camera). In the early 1960s, Joseph Valachi, a soldier in the Luciano “family” organization, took a starring role in later televised hearings. It was Valachi who introduced the now-famous Mafia euphemism “La Cosa Nostra” (Our Thing), and his testimony revealed the evolution of Italian-American organized crime in America, especially in New York. “The Valachi Papers,” a book by Peter Maas, came out in 1969, the same year as the novel that would do more than any other to establish the mythology of the mafia in popular culture: Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”

“The Godfather” & Its Legacy

Puzo’s novel tells the story of Sicilian immigrant Vito Corleone and the family and “business” he built in New York, including the struggles of his son Michael, who will succeed him as the new “Don.” Paramount Pictures bought the film rights to the novel, and studio head Robert Evans turned to the young Italian-American director Francis Ford Coppola to direct. (Coppola also co-wrote the screenplay, with Puzo.) With Marlon Brando (Don Corleone) and Al Pacino (Michael) leading a stellar cast, “The Godfather” gave a fuller, more authentic and more sympathetic glimpse into the Italian-American experience than had been seen on screen before, even as it framed that glimpse through the lens of organized crime. It also painted an undeniably romantic portrait of the mafioso as a man of contradiction, who was ruthless toward his enemy but devoted to his family and friends above all else. Unlike previous gangster films, “The Godfather” looked at the Mafia from the inside out, instead of taking the perspective of law enforcement or of “regular” society. In this way, “The Godfather” reinvented the gangster movie, just as it would influence all those that came after it. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) was darker and more violent than the first film, but both were box office smashes and multiple Oscar winners. (“The Godfather, Part III,” released 16 years after “Part II,” failed to impress critics or audiences.)

Over the next three decades, Hollywood never lost its fascination with the Mafia. A partial list of related films includes dramas like “The Untouchables” (1987), “Donnie Brasco” (1997) and especially Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), which showed the underside of “The Godfather”‘s romantic vision of Mafia life. Mafiosos also made their way into comedies: “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), “Married to the Mob” (1988), “My Blue Heaven” (1990) and “Analyze This” (1999). From animated films to children’s cartoons, video games to “gangsta”-style hip-hop or rap music, the myth of the Mafia was everywhere, thanks in large part to the enduring legacy of “The Godfather.” On TV, of course, mobsters turned up regularly on crime shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law and Order.” In 1999, however, came the debut of a cable TV show featuring a mafioso like none ever seen before.

“The Sopranos”

In Tony Soprano, David Chase, the creator of the HBO series “The Sopranos” and an Italian American from New Jersey, managed to create a new kind of gangster. Chase moved the action from the traditional urban environment to the New Jersey suburbs, where Tony (James Gandolfini) visits a psychiatrist to deal with the stresses of work and family (including wife Carmela, mother Livia and two teenage kids).

In the world of “The Sopranos,” gangsters like Tony are simply trying to achieve the same kind of affluent lifestyle as their fellow suburbanites, all while struggling with a sense that something is missing, that things aren’t like what they used to be. “The Sopranos” ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2004, won more than 20 Emmy Awards and was hailed by some critics as the greatest show in TV history. In acknowledgement of Chase’s debt to other works of Mafia-related popular culture, the series continually referenced those works, including “Public Enemy,” “Goodfellas” and, especially, “The Godfather.”

Negative Stereotyping

Like “The Godfather,” one of the most impressive aspects of “The Sopranos” was its richly detailed portrait of first- and second-generation Italian Americans, as seen through the experience of one extended family. The fact that both of those families were Mob families, however, means that many Italian Americans had mixed feelings toward these works. In 1970, the Italian American Civil Rights League held a rally to stop production of “The Godfather.” As for “The Sopranos,” the National Italian American Foundation has railed against the show as an offensive caricature, while organizers of New York City’s Columbus Day Parade refused to permit “Sopranos” cast members to march in the parade for several years running.

Though pop culture’s fascination with the Mafia has undeniably fueled certain negative stereotypes about Italian Americans, acclaimed works like “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” and “The Sopranos” have also given many Italian Americans a sense of shared identity and experience. Despite its controversial nature, the myth of the Mafia–as created and nurtured by “The Godfather” and its many pop culture descendants–continues to enthrall the masses of Italian and non-Italians alike.