A man walks into a bar and calls Chris Cuomo “Fredo.” It doesn’t go great.
We don’t actually witness the inciting moment, but we know what follows. A bystander films it vertically, presumably so he won’t be caught capturing the ordeal on his shaky cellphone. The argument has the feel of a schoolyard brawl about to take off. Cuomo is off-duty in a baseball cap, the veneer of his suit-and-tie professionalism shed. “My name is Chris Cuomo, I’m an anchor on CNN,” he says. He stands face to face with the man who hurled the perceived insult. He calls him a punk. He informs him that “Fredo” is “like the N-word” for Italians. He offers to throw him down a flight of stairs.
His enemy is either feigning stupidity or is genuinely confused: “I thought that’s who you were,” he says.
“Fredo is from ‘The Godfather,’ ” Cuomo responds. “He was their weak brother.”
The other guy may have been borrowing the term “Fredo” from Rush Limbaugh, who enjoys calling Cuomo that. It’s in no sense accepted as an ethic slur, but Limbaugh and his adherents certainly don’t intend it nicely. In “The Godfather,” Fredo Corleone is the middle, forgotten son; his associates view him as ineffectual, the worst kind of gangster. The dig of calling someone Fredo is twofold: They get labeled not just a Mafioso but also a failed, pathetic one.
The Cuomo clip went viral, and while a handful of people defended him — CNN, Sean Hannity, the governor of New York (who happens to be Cuomo’s brother Andrew) — many people online reacted with jovial mockery. A famous man of Italian descent hasn’t flipped out so comically since Chris Christie brandished an ice cream cone while chastising a critic on a Jersey Shore boardwalk.
It didn’t help that Cuomo’s impassioned conniption mirrored Fredo’s infamous meltdown from “The Godfather Part II,” in which he screams at his brother Michael about how “smart” he is, and Michael, like Cuomo’s instigator, remains aggravatingly indifferent. Cuomo had come to embody the very archetype that made him mad to begin with: stone-faced, tight-lipped and quickly enraged over something seemingly banal.
He has since apologized, and it’s easy enough to cast his rant as a farcical overreaction — the insecurity of a broadcaster working in the shadow of an elder brother who embraced the family dynasty and followed their father, Mario, to the governorship.
But the exchange also highlights the divide between those who see the Mafia as a collection of movie images and those for whom these stereotypes still sting. On camera and in fiction, the mobster has spent almost a century evolving into an array of familiar forms; a collection of touchstone characters as recognizable to us as those of Homer or Shakespeare. At the moment, inept Fredo Corleone is most ubiquitous. Cuomo isn’t even the first case of Fredo name-calling in national news: In 2017, after the media revealed that Donald Trump Jr. had met with a Russian lawyer to collect dirt on Hillary Clinton, Trump aides and popular Twitter users compared him to the “Godfather” character, a hapless heir trying too hard to involve himself in complicated affairs. But other caricatures feature as well. According to an adviser, Barack Obama invoked Michael Corleone at the end of his presidency, saying he “almost got out” with no complications. The Republican operative Roger Stone Jr. reportedly advised someone to imitate the character Frank Pentangeli, i.e., to lie to Congress. The Mafia milieu is so cheerily familiar to us that VH1’s “Mob Wives,” a reality show about the female relatives of incarcerated made men, aired for six successful seasons. Is it any wonder that someone could as easily call a person “Fredo” as “Snape” or “McLovin” or “Cruella?”
But for somebody like Chris Cuomo, a man born in the three years between the publication of “The Godfather” as a best-selling novel and its release as a blockbuster film, it can be a very real jab. His anger is almost certainly inherited. When his father, Mario, served as governor of New York in the 1980s and ’90s — when mobsters still appeared on the front pages of tabloids, corrupted and murdered one another on crowded streets — he labored to distance himself from false associations with organized crime, avoiding the word “Mafia” altogether and nearly claiming that it didn’t truly exist. “The conservatives who attack me,” he once said, chose a line of provocation that “almost always mentions ‘The Godfather,’ always mentions ethnicity.” Bill Clinton, in one instance, had to apologize for suggesting Cuomo was acting like a Mafioso.
As late as 2013, in an article about Cuomo’s relationship to “The Godfather,” The Washington Post said that his origin story — born on a table in a grocery store to Italian immigrants, not fluent in English until his teenage years — “sounds like pages from a Mario Puzo novel.” (Puzo was, of course, the author of “The Godfather,” the inventor of Fredo.) Andrew Cuomo, for his part, has said he never finished watching “The Godfather” because it offended him; Mario didn’t, either, until two years before his death. This kind of sentiment is powerful enough that it has even worked its way back into film and TV depictions of mobsters: On “The Sopranos,” the Italian-American ex-husband of Tony Soprano’s therapist constantly condemns and ridicules the Mafia for the stereotypes it perpetuates.
Untangling these two reference points — the world of fictional archetypes and the world of real crime and ethnic stigma — is nearly impossible. The mob has become such an intricate web of violence and entertainment that Paulie Walnuts is now as true to us as John Gotti. Its aesthetics have seeped far enough into our culture that they’re a standard performance of masculine bluster. Even mob shows mock it. There’s a scene in “The Sopranos” that has a Mafia consigliere impersonating Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, in the same way many real-life mobsters fixated on the glamorous depictions of themselves onscreen. Everyone just laughs at how bad his impression is, in much the same way that the internet laughed at Chris Cuomo, puffing his chest out and pretending he might throw a stranger down a flight of stairs.