The word cappuccino means, literally, small hood, but of course we think of coffee when we hear it. Or friars, and the link is not haphazard at all...
Carlo Fiorletta is an actor and producer but his position as President of the Guild for Italian American Actors is what separates him from many in the entertainment industry. The Guild for Italian American Actors, known as GIAA, was first called the Italian Actors Union, founded in 1937 by Antonio Maiori. The professional organization is the only ethnic acting union in the United States. GIAA’s inception began out of necessity to help Italian speaking actors earn a fair wage during a time when America’s WASP population rejected immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
As a consequence, GIAA is a remnant from a period when Italians as well as other European groups contributed to the growth of unionization in the US during 1920s and 1930s. Many ethnic speaking actors believed it was essential to protect themselves from exploitation and unfair labor practices that were a common practice facing immigrants.
In recent years, however, the decline in labor unions in America has affected collective bargaining rights and limited membership enrollment. In GIAA’s case, the drop in membership compared to a half-century-ago is a direct correlation to fewer Italian immigrants arriving, which has also impacted the demand and interest in Italian speaking plays. “In fact there are no Italian speaking plays performed in the US anymore,” said Fiorletta, “and so our membership since I joined in 1996, has consistently been at about one-hundred.”
For many talented actors “show business” is a difficult field in which to find work, especially steady work. “This is a crazy business to survive in” declared Carlo, “I am a full-time actor and when I am not acting, I tutor in home or on a set.” The full-time actor has been in the business for over twenty years after crossing over from the banking and computer industry. Although he is a licensed teacher in High School Mathematics and Students with Disabilities, he emphasized that he prefers to act and go out on auditions whenever he can. “My wife who is very supportive of my career understands the difficulty in finding work, she is herself a screenwriter.”
Carlo decided to join the guild as another way of getting noticed in show business even though he like most actors admitted finding roles can still be an arduous task. Before Carlo became President of GIAA in 2007, his predecessors had included: actors Lea Serra, Guy Palumbo and Paul Borghese, who played Yogi Berra in the 2001 HBO movie 61 directed by Billy Crystal. GIAA’s current members do not include names like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone or John Travolta. Instead, the organization has honorary members such as Vincent Pastore and Michael Rispoli.
Most actors are already members of SAG-AFTRA, which is also a sister union of GIAA. And many of their actors have performed on Broadway, Off- Broadway, Summer Stock Theater as well as appeared in feature films. Even though the ethnic backgrounds of GIAA members are at least part Italian American, legally this cannot be used as a prerequisite, since no union can prevent anyone from joining its organization based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender. Carlo proudly explained, however, that the organization does have one Russian member and they are seeking new recruits.
Moreover, GIAA is a valuable source for agents and casting directors who are searching for actors to play Italian American roles. In fact, “Ben Affleck’s people called us a few weeks ago because they are shooting a movie and were looking for someone to play an Italian American part.” Fiorletta said. Carlo, whose maternal grandparents were from Sicily and his paternal grandparents were from Rome/Milan, recently appeared and co-produced Detours starring Paul Sorvino. He has also performed in numerous musicals, internet commercials, films and plays. One of his most noted performances was in TONY Award winning playwright Mario Fratti’s play Iraq/ Blindness and he portrayed Murray the Cop on stage in The Odd Couple.
Carlo undoubtedly enjoys his position as president but like any leader of a company, there are certainly challenges to overcome. “At times it is difficult keeping the organization afloat because some of our members owe outstanding dues but we must also recognize the difficulties for actors to find work.” Ultimately, the guild’s main objective is to support and help actors, even if it means to reinforce a stereotype. “Yes, we do get calls for mob roles” the actor declared, “but we are actors and we want to find work for our members.”
Ironically, there are many examples in the history of Hollywood and television that required actors to portray characters with Italian American surnames, but they themselves were not of Italian origin. Edward G. Robinson made a living playing Italian American mobsters, and Marlon Brando’s role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather is one of the greatest performances in American cinema. Brando, nevertheless, was no more Italian than Henry Winkler playing Fonzie on Happy Days or Peter Falk’s memorable character Columbo.
Unfortunately, when it comes to feature films and television, Italian American fictional characters are inevitably connected to organized crime figures. Yet in 2002 GIAA was embroiled in a controversy when the organization wanted to participate and march in the Columbus Day Parade. The parade organizers wanted a list of actors who appeared on The Sopranos, but GIAA refused to provide the names. It is unclear why the parade organizers wanted this list but some speculated the organizers wanted to capitalize on the popularity of The Sopranos. GIAA’s position was that it did not want to be associated with being an organization that provided their members with only mob generated roles; the guild was barred from the parade.
Carlo Fiorletta’s term as GIAA’s President is coming up this year and he is not sure if anyone else is seeking the position. Regardless, of what happens, the actor would like GIAA to remain a base for actors searching for roles and employment. In addition his vision is to continue to reach a new generation of actors and provide the support that many need in a very difficult business. “I don’t know if I will be rich or famous” Carlo said as time was running out from our interview, “but I can at least leave a legacy with GIAA, that makes me proud.”