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Joe Mantegna's role honors grandfather

By
LOU MARANO

WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court justice Joe Mantegna plays on the CBS series "First Monday" is named after his grandfather. Originally, the character was supposed to be Jewish, and the actor says there's nothing wrong with that.

"That was just (producer) Don Bellisario's take on writing that pilot," Mantegna said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. Bellisario is creator of such hit shows as "Magnum PI," "Quantum Leap" and "JAG."

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"But my take on it was since it was an ongoing series ... I wanted to be able to draw on myself, on my life. It's one thing to research a role to do a movie for a couple hours. But to do something that's going to perhaps go on, and you'll be delving into all aspects of that person's life, I thought it would be much more interesting and helpful to rely on my own instincts," he said.

Mantegna also said he thought it would be a good opportunity to take a role that would have a "positive connotation" to most people. Making the character a member of his own ethnic group would "balance the scales a little bit," he told United Press International.

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The actor is not as upset as some about the entertainment industry's tendency to portray Italian Americans as mobsters. "I've done it myself in terms of roles I've done," Mantegna said. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his starring role in the CBS miniseries "The Last Don," based on Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, and he is the voice of "Fat Tony," the cartoon Mafioso, on "The Simpsons." But he does feel strongly that Italian-Americans should be portrayed in a positive light when the opportunity presents itself.

On Wednesday night, the Sons of Italy Foundation will honor Mantegna with its first ever Excellence in Media Award at its 14th National Education and Leadership Awards gala.

"This is the first time since Daniel Travanti played Capt. Frank Furillo in the 1980s TV series 'Hill Street Blues' that we've had such a powerfully moral, ethically correct Italian-American character," said Dona DeSanctis, the foundation's deputy executive director. "We've waited 20 years for an Italian-American character who upholds the law rather than breaks the law."

The title "First Monday" comes from the day in October when the Supreme Court begins its session. The show premiered in January. It is going into reruns after 13 weeks but will not be renewed for next season.

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"That's just television; that's business," Mantegna said. "What they tell us is that our demographics were very strong for people over 35." But he said advertisers want to capture the brand loyalty of younger consumers with many years of spending ahead of them.

Mantegna's maternal grandfather, Joseph Novelli, came to the United States with his older brother after the turn of the 20th century. The family was from near Bari, in the southern province of Puglia. They worked their way to Chicago, but the older brother decided America wasn't for him, and he returned to Italy. The brothers lost track of each other. Joseph Novelli married and raised a family in Chicago.

The only contact came during World War II, when two of Mantegna's uncles -- Joseph Novelli's sons -- stopped in the town to look up relatives.

Then in 1974, after more than 60 years, Mantegna's grandfather got a call from the Italian Embassy saying his older brother had died. Mantegna said the Italian relatives "felt it was very important for them to try to find out if the brother (the actor's grandfather) was still alive, because he would now be the patriarch of the family."

Joseph Novelli and his two sons who had visited during World War II flew to Italy and re-established contact.

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In 1975 Mantegna, accompanied by his wife, toured Europe with a theater company. He thought: "I don't know who these people are, but maybe I'll spend an afternoon and have coffee with them."

At the train station he asked for directions to his relatives' home. "This woman got all excited. She knew who they were. 'Oh, yes!' As Italians will do -- we're in the taxicab; she's running alongside to take us to the house. She wouldn't even get in the cab with us. She points to the house."

Mantegna identified himself to the woman who answered the door. We hear, "GIUSEPPE!"

"They grabbed me and hugged me and grabbed my wife and pulled us in, and the next thing we know we're there for, like, two weeks."

"They didn't want us to leave. They wanted us to stay and work there."

This was the beginning of a relationship that has endured for more than a quarter-century.

"I'm close to my cousins there now. It turns out that my uncle had three boys. ... It's just been wonderful to have this parallel family in Italy."

Mantegna believes that as Americans grow more ethnically homogeneous, they have only a limited period of time to recognize the specific cultural contributions that go into the U.S. mix. "All these groups are bringing something to the table," he said.

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And what do Italians bring to the table?

"Where do you start? From Dante to Frank Sinatra. ... But not just the arts. Some of it is an attitude about things -- that family is important. ... It's not a bad role model for society."

"And there's a friendliness," Mantegna said. "People who go to Europe say they love Italy because the people are so friendly. ... You never hear people say, 'We hate the Italians. They're so cold.' You don't get that."

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