Anthony Martignetti, an Italian immigrant who dashed through the streets of Boston and into the memory of millions of television viewers as the 12-year-old boy summoned home to a spaghetti dinner by his mother in an indelible commercial for Prince pasta, died Aug. 23 at his home in West Roxbury, Mass. He was 63.
An older brother, Andy Martignetti, said that Mr. Martignetti was awaiting treatment for severe sleep apnea but that the cause of death had not yet been determined.
Nearly any American who owned a television in the 1970s can still hear the raven-haired Italian American mother who leaned out of her tenement window to call her son to the table, her voice carrying over the bustle of Boston’s North End: “Anthony! Anthony!”
The Prince pasta commercial debuted in 1969 and aired for nearly 14 years, making a local and national celebrity of Mr. Martignetti, a schoolboy who had come to the United States from Italy only three years before the spot was filmed.
To residents of Boston’s Little Italy and to Mr. Martignetti’s family, both in the United States and in the “old country,” the commercial was a source of enduring pride. To the Prince company, it was a shrewd centerpiece of its campaign to persuade consumers to make Wednesdays “Prince spaghetti day.”
And to the television viewers who watched its nostalgic sequence of the adorable and adoring Anthony racing home past market vendors and a bocce court, it held out the prospect of something more than a filling meal — the promise of security and love around a humble hearth.
“I always understood that it was larger than me, that I had a responsibility to preserve what that commercial meant to people,” Mr. Martignetti told the Boston Globe years later. “I knew that if I got in trouble, little Anthony from the spaghetti commercial would be all over the paper.”
Although Mr. Martignetti has been described as a child star, neither he nor his parents had any ambition for him to become one. He was playing ball with his friends one day when several talent scouts from the Jerome O’Leary advertising agency approached the boys asking for directions. Recognizing them as outsiders — “long-haired, hippie types,” Mr. Martignetti told the Globe — his friends replied with an insult.
But Mr. Martignetti tried to help them find their way. Weeks later, when the scouts ran into him again, they asked if he might like to act in a commercial.
“I said, ‘Ma, I’m gonna be on TV,’ ” Mr. Martignetti recalled to the Globe. “And she slapped me. She thought I was in trouble and I was gonna be on the news.”
By casting Mr. Martignetti and another Italian immigrant, the late Mary Fiumara, as his mother, the commercial achieved what advertising experts identify as its most compelling quality: its authenticity. It won a Clio Award recognizing excellence in advertising.
The spot reflected several trends in American culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said Jackson Lears, a cultural historian at Rutgers University.
One was the search for security and rootedness amid the social upheaval of the era. Another was the idea that ethnic identity, which the forces of assimilation had sought to suppress, was “not something to be escaped or transcended” but rather something to be celebrated.
“There was a nostalgic turn in popular culture . . . to recover ethnic, familial, communal roots of all kinds,” Lears said. “This commercial perfectly epitomizes that impulse.” The family is “not eating Campbell’s soup,” he added. “They’re eating spaghetti.”
Patti Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the commercial stood out among the era’s advertisements, which tended to be loud and repetitive. The Prince commercial starts out with a shout — “Anthony! Anthony!” — but quickly turns quiet to tell a story.
“Most days, Anthony takes his time going home, but not today,” the narrator recounts, as the scene shifts between the boy running home and his mother laying out the dinner spread. “Today is Wednesday. And as every family in the North End of Boston will tell you, Wednesday is Prince spaghetti day.”
When Anthony arrives home, panting in the doorway, his mother is there to greet him, her smile as warm as his.
“The kid is not being dragged back for family dinner,” Williams said. “He is running toward family dinner. And what family doesn’t want their kid to run back home to enjoy dinner?” While celebrating Italian heritage, she observed, the commercial also told viewers that Prince pasta was “for everyone.”
Antonio Martignetti was born on July 6, 1957, in Candida, a hilltop town in the southern Italian region of Campania. He and his parents, two older brothers and an older sister lived on a farm, where his father worked while also serving on a highway maintenance crew.
In 1966, when Mr. Martignetti was 8 years old, the family came to the United States to join his grandparents in Boston. They lived in the North End, where Mr. Martignetti grew up speaking the Neapolitan dialect. He adopted the first name Anthony, as well as the middle name James, as he was integrated into American life.
In Boston, Mr. Martignetti’s mother was a seamstress, and his father worked at the cemetery where Mr. Martignetti will be buried, according to his brother.
Mr. Martignetti’s first marriage, to Tara Martignetti, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of three years, the former Ruth Ubri, of West Roxbury; a son from his first marriage, Anthony Martignetti of Highlands, N.J.; his parents, Raffaele Martignetti and Carmela Martignetti of West Roxbury; two brothers; and a sister.
Andy Martignetti said that his parents did not speak “a word of English” in 1969 and that he acted as an interpreter when the advertising scouts followed Anthony home to request their permission for him to be cast in the commercial.
As he relayed their request, Andy Martignetti pitched himself for the role instead of his kid brother — arguing in jest but only partly, he said, that as the older of the two, he could eat more pasta. But the reps stuck with the little brother.
Mr. Martignetti gave varying accounts of the compensation that he received for his appearance in the commercial. In a 2009 interview with the Globe, he estimated that he received $1,500, but he later told the New York Times that the figure was closer to $20,000. His brother said that the total royalties well exceeded $20,000 over the lifetime of the commercial.
“His hand was always in his pocket” to help friends with car repairs or other unexpected expenses, Andy Martignetti said, describing the Prince commercial as “the only positive thing” in his brother’s life “in terms of employment opportunities.” Mr. Martignetti worked for the Polaroid photography company, for machine shops and for supermarkets before becoming a security officer in a Massachusetts courthouse.
In 2000, he sued his employer at the time, Stop & Shop, alleging that his supervisor had disparaged him with anti-Italian ethnic slurs. The company filed a counterclaim against him, and the Globe reported that the parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 2003.
In 2013, the owner of the Prince pasta company remade the 1969 commercial but with a boy who runs home for dinner only to find there an older version of himself, all grown up. To the abiding chagrin of the people of Boston’s North End, the actor cast for the spot was not Mr. Martignetti.
“I’m disappointed,” he told the Globe at the time. “Everyone keeps calling me and saying, ‘It’s a fake, it’s a fraud.’ ”
To his neighbors, he forever remained the Prince spaghetti boy.
“On Wednesdays, you’ll still find me next door eating the best pasta in the world,” he remarked decades after the commercial had left the air. “My mother’s.”
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