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Ethnic Groups (Book Project Introduction)

A Complete Guide To All Ethnic Characters Appearing On Prime Time TV Shows Broadcast From 1947-2007
By Jerome A. Holst

Historical background (a quick look)

Television is a time capsule of on-air portrayals of ethnic groups (favorable or unfavorable) who lived, cried, played, and died in America. From the 1940s through the mid 1960s with very few exceptions, however, television programming in America consisted of white European-descended actors and actresses. There were program exceptions, like the sitcoms AMOS AND ANDY or BEULAH, in the case of African-American actors, but in most cases, ethnic characters were portrayed in extreme stereotypes or as workers in underpaid, service industry occupations like maids, servants gardeners etc, or in subservient positions of authority like an assistant to someone in authority. It wasn't until the mid 1960s that persons of color began to appear with more frequency on the television tube.

As the racial complexion of the American audiences changes and the prediction that Caucasians will become a minority themselves by the years 2050 outnumbered by Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups, there will inevitably be a shift in the programming psychology of the television networks simply because television is motivated to make a profit and they will be forced to eventually accommodate the portrayal of the nation's diverse ethnic groups in the medium. The future aside, however, let's address the purpose of this book which is to chronicle ethnic characters as they appeared in the first fifty years of television.

Purpose of this book

This book is intended to give easy access to the characters who represented various ethnic groups (Native Americans, Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, etc.) on television over the last fifty years in both major and minor roles (mostly on American television, but some productions from Great Britain will be included in this book.)

To begin my research, I extracted, as best I could, all the ethnic characters that have appeared on television over the last fifty years. To be as comprehensive as possible, I included ethnic characters that have appeared in sitcoms, adventure series, dramas, miniseries and TV commercials.

After I gathered all of the characters, I then set about analyzing in a limited fashion what kind of occupations or lifestyles these particular ethnic groups were assigned to over the years. By looking at the overall numbers, some interesting facts arose (some of which may already be obvious to the avid television viewers). In the case of the Italians, they have overwhelmingly cast as criminals and cops. The Irish similarly have been placed in the roles of law enforcement. The Arabs were rarely portrayed as the good guys but rather seen as villains, covetous desert rulers and warmongers. The Russians and Germans in their limited appearance have been portrayed as spies and war criminals; and the American Indians have been portrayed as savages and second class citizens.

Ethnic Character breakdown

About one-third of the book includes information on African-Americans (a.k.a., blacks, negros, colored. etc.) simply because of all the ethnic groups outside of Caucasians, this category is the one of the largest represented. The remainder of the book will include references to characters from Hispanic, Asian/Pacific, Mediterranean, Mid-eastern, Northern-Europeans, North American Indians, and Russian/East Block national backgrounds.

Because, much of American television history is primarily filled with Caucasian characters, references to white European based cultures are included but only if a TV program mentioned their cultural heritage in the script or their background - though not mentioned - is obvious to the viewers.

Many programs like THE ADVENTURES of OZZIE and HARRIET, BEWITCHED, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, are just portrayals of Caucasians of generic descent probably white Anglo-Saxon protestants. These programs will not appear in this book. However, a program like MY THREE SONS which mentioned the Douglas family heritage as Scottish, and even had a programs about Old World family members visiting the United States, will be included in this text.

In reference to the BRITISH characters, this book (taken from a United States of America perspective) covers only those British characters that have appeared in shows broadcast in America. So, for instance, this book will include characters from such American productions as the sitcom FAMILY AFFAIR that featured a British butler (Mr. French) in the employee of a New York City engineer. But, it will also list characters from British productions such as the BBC produced series FAWLTY TOWERS (which appeared on American television via Public Television and other cable networks) about a zany, often frustrated British innkeeper played by John Cleese.

Scope of the book

The programs that I have investigated are generally those broadcasts during primetime (evening hours between 7-11pm). And although most of the programs in this book are based on the common genres (sitcoms, westerns, dramas, etc), I have also included those variety and news programs, which featured characters of color.

For instance, I would include a show like THE FLIP WILSON SHOW that starred comedian Flip Wilson, the first black American to host his own comedy variety program. Other exceptions in this book include characters that starred in children's programming such as THE ADVENTURES OF POW WOW, a five-minute cartoon segment about a North American Indian brave that appeared on the CAPTAIN KANGAROO show.

Entry formats and contents

Each entry will include the name of the program, the network that it aired on, and how many years the program ran. Also included will be the real name of the actor who portrayed the ethnic character, followed by the name of the character and a small summary of what this character did on the show.

On occasion, if the actor playing a particular ethnic character happened to be a high profile celebrity or became involved in a controversy related to his ethnic background, other information would be included.

Note: Each entry in the book does not attempt to give a summary of the show as much as it summarizes the ethnic characters who appeared in the program. In addition each entry is coded with the following asterisks identification.

* Indicates the person was the star or costar of the program.

**  Indicates the person was a regular or a recurring actor on the show.

Sample category entry - "Vietnamese"


**(Gedde Watanabe) Tran Van Din, a Vietnamese immigrant working as a short order cook at McCrorey's Landing, a cafe/bait shop located in Hadley Cove, Texas. He came to the U.S.A. by misrepresenting the fact that he was an oriental mail-order-bride. He had sent a picture of Connie Chung to his love-starved suitor (who paid for his airfare to the states).

How I determined who was what nationality or ethnic group?

In determining to which nationality an ethnic character belonged, I used the following guidelines:
  1. If the character's ethnic origin is openly mentioned in the script.
  2.  If the person looks or follows the stereotypical behavior of a particular group (such as all the character's on the show are Italian actors or characters or have Italian surnames, therefore creating an identifiable ethnic background - n other words "if it quacks like a duck...etc.
  3. Use of ethnic phrases or identifiable speech patterns that alert the viewer of a character's country of origin.

In many cases, I could not find the specific ethnic nationality of a character, so I used my gut instinct to place that character. This can probably be translated as the error factor found in a poll or survey which indicates the results could be accurate within a plus or minus percentage rate. If you are in possession of a more correct ethnic origins, by all means let me know, so I can update the text.

In the case of Blacks (Africans-Americans) I grouped all black actors of African heritage under AFRICAN-AMERICANS section, unless I discovered that the black character came from elsewhere. So, for instance, if  a black character appears to be Jamaican (through speech or actions), this character would be placed under the category JAMAICAN. If a character is black and actually lives in Africa, then that character would be assigned an AFRICAN category to correspond to the country from which they came.

In the case of Hispanics (Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chicanos, etc) many characters are not given a specific identifiable ethnic origin but they look the part or have a surname that identifies them as being part of that culture.

For unidentifiable Hispanic characters who appeared in programs based in the Northeast (New York City, for example) I placed them under the Puerto-Rican section.

Unidentifiable Hispanics who starred in shows based in the southern and western states I placed under the MEXICAN category. If an Hispanic character is identified as being someone living in a country other than the North American/Mexico region then their background ethnic origin will be listed in that specific country such as Cuba, Spain or Central or South America territories like El Salvador or Brazil.

This same process has been used for other ethnic groups such as Asian characters. Many times, a script will only mention that a character is an Oriental or Asian. In these cases, I try to best identify which ethnic background to assign the characters. If the character is not specifically identified in the script as say Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc., then I use the actor's or character's last name to try to figure out where I should place the actor.

If the character's last name does not obviously correspond to the person's apparent ethnic background (their name is "Jones" but they are obviously Asian in appearance), then the actor's surname will help determine the ethnic identity.

If an actor with a Japanese surname plays a character with a Chinese surname, then the character's Chinese surname is used to identify them as Chinese. So, for example, names like Fong, Chen, Tong or Chang, are classified as Chinese.

In like manner, if the name is Nakamura, Kurasawa or Myagi, I classify them as Japanese; and if the character's name were Tran Van Din, or Lien Troung or Nguyen, then I would assign a Vietnamese ethnic designation. It's not an exact science but it gets the characters grouped as closely as possible to their correct ethnic group.

Occasionally I will include an entry twice in the book. For instance, if a person is both Italian and Japanese (like Kimiko Fannuchi played by Maggie Han in the sitcom Murphy’s Law) then this character can be found in both the ITALIAN section and the JAPANESE section.

The most notable yet nebulous ethnic character in the book is Latka Gravas (played by Andy Kaufman), an East European immigrant whose country of origin was never specifically mentioned in the script of the sitcom “Taxi.” In this case, I chose the country of Russia as his country of origin because Kaufmann‘s “Foreign Man” comedy sketch which inspired the Latka character claimed to be from an island in the Caspian Sea. (The Capsian Sea borders the USSR and Iran).

Final Thought

If the old adage "Your are what you eat" is true then the American public and its attitudes about the many ethnic groups in the country are certainly impacted by that statement and therefore "We are what we watch."

With this in mind, by doing some tentative research into how ethnic characters have been portrayed on television, we discover in some part how we perceive them or at least how the writer's and producer's perceptions of those groups (their prejudices, likes or dislikes of certain groups) were transformed into television characters and programming. [“this problem raises the public acceptance of the favored groups and the public dislikes of the resented groups].

In the end, I hope the information that I have accumulated in this text will assist others doing research in the fields of television history and ethnic studies.

Ethnic Categories in this book :

Proposed Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Holst, Jerome Alphonse, 1951-

Ethnic Characters on Television: A Complete Guide to Ethnic Characters Appearing on Prime Time TV Shows Broadcast from 1947-2007 / by Jerome A. Holst.



1. Television programs--United States--Encyclopedias 2. Television programs--United States--Miscellanea 3. Popular Culture--Miscellanea


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