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How Fredo, the tragic ‘Godfather’ character, became an insult wielded by Trump

The Godfather, Marlon Brando (second from left) stars as the powerful Don Vito Corleone, here flanked on his daughter's wedding day by sons, Michael (Al Pacino, left) Sonny (James Caan, second from right) and Fredo (John Cazale) in "Mario Puzo's 'The Godfather.' (NBC (National Broadcasting Company))
The Godfather, Marlon Brando (second from left) stars as the powerful Don Vito Corleone, here flanked on his daughter's wedding day by sons, Michael (Al Pacino, left) Sonny (James Caan, second from right) and Fredo (John Cazale) in "Mario Puzo's 'The Godfather.' (NBC (National Broadcasting Company))
Alex Horton

Mafia boss Vito Corleone gathers oranges at the New York market as his hapless middle son Alfredo sits in the black, chrome-tipped Cadillac Fleetwood.

Assassins scramble toward the kingpin with revolvers out, trap him against the car’s hood and fire nearly a dozen shots into his back. Alfredo leaps out, and in a panicked frenzy, drops his pistol as the gunmen slip away - leaving ‘Fredo’ a broken, sobbing mess.

It was not the first time Fredo Corleone, sunken-eyed and sorrowful, had a moment of weakness in “The Godfather” film franchise. But his cowardice in the assassination attempt cemented actor John Cazale’s role as one of the most tragically flawed characters in cinematic history.

And on Tuesday, President Donald Trump taunted CNN’s Chris Cuomo after a filmed confrontation with the host and another man using the character’s name as an insult exploded over social media. “I thought Chris was Fredo also,” the president said. “The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings @CNN.”

Cuomo said in the video that the name was an ethnic slur for Italian Americans, and he prompted his own backlash after he drew comparisons to the n-word.

“In every way, calling someone ‘Fredo’ is the antithesis of what we’d call a strong and powerful person,” Edward Falco, the author of the 2012 series prequel, “The Family Corleone,” told The Washington Post.

Who was ‘Fredo’?

Alfredo Corleone has been synonymous with weakness and failure since Mario Puzo’s 1969 best-selling novel “The Godfather” led to two Best Picture-winning films. There are spoilers below, but both films are decades old, routinely listed among the best films ever made and produced legendary roles for Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro. So fair warning.

The story focuses on the Corleone’s family’s transition of power from the patriarch Don Vito Corleone to his youngest son, Michael, in postwar New York City. The eldest son Sonny, a hothead womanizer, is gunned down by a rival mob after Vito “Godfather” Corleone is hospitalized. That left the youngest brother Michael, a calm and strategic war veteran reluctant to get his hands dirty in the family business, to step in and take control.

Fredo, the second oldest son and, in strictly a birth order sense, the rightful heir to the business, took the ordeal as another barb to his wounded pride.

“He’s not the brother who can protect his father. He’s a sad, ineffectual and weak character,” Falco said Tuesday.

Manipulated by other characters and hungry for validation, Fredo sides with a crooked casino owner over Michael in the first film. In the sequel, Michael learns Fredo supplied information that led to a failed attempt on his life.

Amid a stream of New Year’s confetti, Michael grabs Fredo tightly around his neck and kisses him. “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart,” Michael tells him. Fredo slinks away.

Later, in the film’s bleak climax, Fredo comes clean about his betrayal. He was promised a reward and control - two things he never received in the family. Then, Fredo reveals the root of his destructive angst.

“I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over!” Fredo roars.

Michael responds that it was how their father wanted the business to run.

“It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says,” Fredo shoots back. “I’m smart and I want respect!”

Fredo melts into a chair, and Michael banishes him from the family. Soon after, as Fredo sits on a rocking boat, a family strongman puts a pistol to Fredo’s head and pulls the trigger as Michael watches from a window, bowing his head in shame.

Falco said he agreed with Cuomo that ‘Fredo’ was directed as an ethnic slur, not just meaning someone weak and incompetent but a weak and incompetent Italian. It sounds close to “guido,” he said, a more prominent insult toward Italian Americans, though he said Cuomo went “overboard” comparing it to the n-word.

“Italians have a history in this country that includes a lot of oppression and derision,” Falco said, including as a class of subjugated immigrants.

In 1891, soon after 11 Italian American men were killed and mutilated by a mob in New Orleans, the New York Times published an editorial calling them “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians” and “a pest without mitigations.”

That subjugation played a major role in the plot of “The Godfather.” Young Vito Corleone, played in the second “Godfather” film by De Niro, kills a New York mob boss coercing Italian Americans to pay him protection money, knowing they cannot go to the police.

But the story is also centered on themes of loyalty, respect and family above all else. And for Italian families, Falco said, those ideas are taken very seriously. ‘Fredo’ as an insult is even an outcrop for the word ciuccio, which Falco said can mean ‘donkey’ in Italian but used to describe an incompetent family member in need of constant help.

Fredo Corleone is Cazale’s hallmark role. He only starred in five feature films, every one a Best Picture nominee.

Cazale acted in the first two “Godfather” films and teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola again in “The Conversation.” He also rejoined Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

But Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer and died after completing his role for 1978′s “The Deer Hunter,” which won Best Picture. He later appeared in archival footage for the 1990 release, “The Godfather III.”

In a sad twist, the video of Cuomo surfaced Monday - reminding the world of Cazale’s astonishing work on what would have been the actor’s 84th birthday.

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