John Turturro Explores the Italian-American Experience in PBS' New Doc (INTERVIEW)

Tonight's premiere of 'The Italian Americans' on PBS delves into lesser-known aspects of 100 years of history. John Turturro reveals why his role in this project hits close to home.
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John Turturro Photo

John Turturro. (Photo: John Maggio Productions)

What do Tony Bennett, Joe DiMaggio, Stanley Tucci, Nancy Pelosi, and John Turturro have in common? They are among the subjects of a new PBS two-part, four-hour documentary series, The Italian Americans, which explores the evolution of Italians in the U.S. from the late 19th century to today.

"I know a lot about Italian history because I've been interested in it," says Turturro, whose critically acclaimed acting career encompasses projects as diverse as the hit box office franchise Transformers to Oscar-nominated movies such as Quiz Show and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? "I don't think that [Italian] people know that much about where they come from. They maybe know the last 50 years… Plus, I don't think Italian-American history is as well documented as other groups."

To help make that knowledge more readily available, Turturro agreed to tell his story. But there was also a more personal reason for his participation: He wanted his uncle, the last surviving relative from his parents' generation, to be able to share what life was like for his cohorts during a much more difficult time. Turturro's uncle did tell his story, but with the limited amount of time the documentary had to cover more than 100 years of history, he ended up on the cutting room floor.

Even so, Turturro was able to impart a bit of the flavor of his parents' era, talking about how his grandfather had no choice other than to put Turturro's mother into an orphanage when she was 4 years old because her mother had died, and her father couldn't work and care for her. As a result, she was forced to assimilate and "didn't really want to be Italian once the nuns got a hold of her," Turturro says. In the end, he adds that she was "very Italian, but the other influences in her life did affect her."

Also among the stories told in The Italian Americans are such diverse movers and shakers as Amadeo Giannini, the founder of Bank of Italy in 1940, which went on to become Bank of America; Rudolph Valentino, who introduced a new idea of what a sex symbol should look like to movie audiences in the 1920s; and Joe DiMaggio, one of the most celebrated baseball players of his generation.

"I thought it was worthy to be involved," Turturro says. "I had done some documentaries in Naples and Sicily about music and puppetry. I work a lot in Italy and I have gotten to know a lot of people and a little bit of the language. I think history is a living thing."

This series also touches on the stereotypical portrayal of Italians in the media as members of the mafia, which is something that Turturro says he has consciously tried to avoid — especially now that his career is at the point where he can chose his roles.

The Godfather Photo

Franci Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather' was a monumental achievement in movie history, but it didn't help with the mafia stereotypes surrounding Italian Americans. (Photo: Photofest)

"I come from the theater, where you play a lot of different things — plays like Chekov, Shakespeare and Beckett," he says. "Years ago, I played some of those parts yes, but I was also given the opportunity to do other things."

To illustrate this point, Turturro is currently working on the upcoming HBO mini-series Criminal Justice, which was James Gandolfini's passion project before his untimely death. But instead of playing a crime boss, Turturro is on the other side of the law, replacing The Sopranos star in the role of Jack Stone, an ambulance-chasing New York City attorney.

Criminal Justice is just one of the projects that Turturro, who has directed the films Mac, Romance & Cigarettes, and Fading Gigglo, has on his plate. There are several more he is considering.

"I am a fan of old Italian movies that I would like to adapt," he responds when asked if there are any historic roles he would like to play. "Sometimes it is just a book that you read. Something that moves you. Something that resonates."

Frank Sinatra Photo

A young Frank Sinatra, with an unidentified woman, in Hoboken, New Jersey, c. 1930s (Photo: Photofest)

These days the development process for his projects takes place in the top-floor office of his Brooklyn home, and with all the transformations in the now-trendy area, he finds fewer reasons to head into Manhattan.

"It's amazing how it's changed," says Turturro, who, as a result, runs into other famous Brooklynites. "There's some really nice new movie theaters and regular theaters. We have a lot of nice restaurants now in my neighborhood."

And even though his generation of Turturros has several family members in showbiz — brother Nicholas (Blue Bloods) and cousin Aida (The Sopranos) are also both actors — he is happy that his sons haven't caught the bug.

"I don't think they want to do it, so that's good," Turturro says. "My son Amedeo [24] has been in a few movies, but he doesn't want to do it. Diego [14] was in Fading Gigolo and he was really good, but he doesn't want to do it. I think he would rather be an assistant director. He's good in science and math. I am hoping that he won't join the circus, because this is a circus business."

The Italian Americans will premiere on PBS on Tuesdays, February 17 and 24, 2015, 9–11 p.m. ET/PT.