Don Novello turns 80 years old today; his best known character Father Guido Sarducci turns 50 this year, as well.
This character always intrigued me when I was a kid. I’m not a Catholic, so he possessed a certain intriguing exoticism that always felt just outside of my grasp. Father Guido is not just a priest but a Vatican priest, with a vaudeville Italian accent and a sort of sleazy edge, hammered home with a porn ‘stache and tinted shades and ever present cigarette. Somehow his padre hat and cap made him look simultaneously like an eminence and a gangster. There was an aura of corruption about him which elevated the character from dialect humor to satire. Novello had debuted the character in San Francisco night clubs in 1973, and its popularity got him cast on a David Steinberg special and The Smothers Brothers Show (1975 incarnation). He was hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 1977, and began doing his Father Guido bits on Weekend Update in 1978, remaining there through the big shake-up in 1980.
While Novello has always played roles outside of Father Guido, it became his signature thing, like Jack Pearl’s Baron Munchausen or Harry Einstein’s Parkyakarkus, and so he ended up playing the character in endless contexts, from late night talk shows, to MTV music videos, to guest shots on sit-coms, to an appearance in Gilda Radner’s one woman Broadway show.
His primary champion as a non-Guido actor has been Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in his movies Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1988), the “Life Without Zoe” segment in New York Stories (1989), The Godfather Part III (1990), Jack (1996), and Twixt (2011). He also appeared in One Night Stand (1995) directed by Coppola’s sister Talia Shire.
Novello is also known for his humor books, consisting of letters he wrote as pranks under the pseudonym “Lazlo Toth”, complaining in an obtuse way to politicians and other public figures, often receiving unintentionally hilarious responses. He co-wrote the legendary unproduced screenplay Noble Rot with John Belushi, and was a producer on SCTV for one season (1982). His most recent IMDB credit is from 2015.
For more on variety history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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