Carlo Ponti

Film producer who discovered Sofia Scicolone - Sophia Loren - and controversially married her


Carlo Fortunato Pietro Ponti, film producer: born Magenta, Italy 11 December 1912; married 1946 Giuliana Fiastri (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1957/1965), 1957/1966 Sophia Loren (two sons); died Geneva 10 January 2007.

Carlo Ponti was one of the most successful producers of the post-war Italian film boom, backing works by directors such as Alberto Lattuada, Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, but there can be no doubt that the most spectacular "production" of his long career was the transformation of Sofia Scicolone from impoverished bit-part actress into Sophia Loren, international film star, iconic embodiment of Italian womanhood and, not irrelevantly, the second Signora Carlo Ponti.

Although they made an incongruous, even comical, couple, with the statuesque Loren towering over the diminutive, balding and bespectacled Ponti, their partnership endured for more than 50 years, surviving not only the inevitable rumours of extra-marital dalliances on both sides, but also the condemnation of the Vatican and occasional brushes with the law.

Unlike his fellow producers Dino De Laurentiis, Goffredo Lombardo and Alberto Grimaldi, who all came from the Naples area, Carlo Ponti was born in the industrial north of Italy, in Magenta, near Milan, in 1912. He was the son of a lawyer and, after receiving a law degree from the University of Milan, began work in his father's practice where he met clients involved in the film industry.

Ponti decided on a change of direction, and his skill at negotiating contracts led to a rapid rise in the business, culminating in 1941 in his first venture as a producer. The film Piccolo mondo antico (Old-Fashioned World), set in Milan and directed by Mario Soldati, made a star of its leading lady, Alida Valli, but its anti-Fascist theme earned Ponti a brief spell in prison. Two years later, Ponti oversaw the directing début of his friend and fellow Milanese Lattuada (who had been assistant director on the Soldati film) when he produced Giacomo l'idealista ("Giacomo the Idealist").

At the end of the Second World War, Ponti joined the Lux production company, where he worked on some of the earliest films of the Neo-Realist school, including Luigi Zampa's Vivere in pace (To Live in Peace, 1947), Pietro Germi's Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth, 1947) and Lattuada's Senza pietà (Without Pity) and Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the River, both 1948). In 1950, having helped launch the career of Gina Lollobrigida, Ponti, by now married, joined forces with De Laurentiis, a fellow Lux employee, to form the production company Ponti-De Laurentiis. The pair were quick to signal their intentions, aping the big business style of Hollywood moguls, while producing films which included comedies featuring the ever-popular Totò, adaptations of Emilio Salgari's swashbuckling pirate yarns, and steamy dramas showcasing the talents of Silvana Mangano (De Laurentiis's wife).

At about this time, Ponti, in his occasional capacity as beauty contest judge, was struck by the charms of a contestant appearing under the name of Sofia Lazzaro, and promptly offered her a screen test, followed by small parts in films such as the Mangano vehicle Anna (1951), directed by Lattuada. The following year, Ponti helped her to win the lead in a film produced by his friend, Goffredo Lombardo, head of production at Titanus; it was Lombardo's inspiration to change his new star's name to Sophia Loren.

In 1954, Ponti and De Laurentiis enjoyed their greatest success with Federico Fellini's La Strada (The Road), featuring Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, which went on to become the first winner in open competition of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. That year, Ponti cast Loren opposite Quinn in Pietro Francisci's Attila (Attila the Hun) and in a segment of De Sica's L'oro di Napoli (Gold of Naples).

Ponti and De Laurentiis continued their attempts to win a share of the American-dominated foreign market by combining big-budgets and Hollywood stars in such films as Mario Camerini's Ulisse (Ulysses, 1955), with Kirk Douglas, Mangano and Quinn, and a ponderous adaptation of War and Peace (1956), directed by King Vidor and starring Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda and Vittorio Gassman.

The two then went their separate ways, with Ponti forming his own Compagnia Cinematografica Champion. In 1957, during a visit to Hollywood, Ponti obtained a Mexican divorce, followed by a marriage by proxy, also in Mexico, to Sophia Loren. With divorce illegal in Italy, the couple were loudly condemned by the Vatican, and Ponti was informed by the Italian authorities that he would face charges of bigamy should he return home, while Loren would be charged with "concubinage". Ponti stayed in America, co-producing Loren's Hollywood films and ensuring that she became Italy's best-known cinematic export, despite the fact that most of her films were box-office failures.

In 1960, the Pontis negotiated a return to Italy to make La ciociara (Two Women), directed by Vittorio De Sica, but, during the shooting, the couple were summoned to appear before the public prosecutor. Both denied being married, which, in Italy at any rate, was technically true, and the case was adjourned. De Sica, who enjoyed a special rapport with Loren, coaxed a career-best performance from his star which duly won her the Academy Award for Best Actress the following year, the first for a role in a foreign-language film.

Now based in Paris, Ponti produced a number of films for such directors of the nouvelle vague as Jacques Demy, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, while teaming his wife with Marcello Mastroianni in the hugely popular comedies Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1963) and Matrimonio all'italiana (Marriage - Italian Style, 1964), both directed by De Sica.

In 1965, Ponti scored his greatest success with David Lean's blockbuster adaptation of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. The film, though frequently cumbersome and unconvincing, survived poor initial reviews to become a major box-office hit and to collect five Academy Awards. Also in 1965, the Pontis solved their marital and legal difficulties by taking out French citizenship. Ponti's first wife obtained a divorce, leaving Ponti and Loren free to marry in Paris the following year.

Professionally, Ponti enjoyed mixed fortunes for the remainder of the 1960s: the success of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-up (1966) being balanced out by the resounding disaster that was De Sica's Amanti (A Place for Lovers, 1968). Ponti and De Sica fared better, at least in Europe, when reuniting Loren and Mastroianni in 1969 for I girasoli (Sunflower), while Dino Risi's La moglie del prete (The Priest's Wife, 1971), again with Loren and Mastroianni, proved as popular with Italian audiences as it was unpopular with the Vatican.

Following a couple of violent thrillers directed by Sergio Martino, Ponti paired Loren with Richard Burton in what would prove to be De Sica's last film. When the director was diagnosed with lung cancer, Ponti insisted on paying his medical expenses and retaining him as director. The resulting film, Il viaggio (The Voyage, 1974), was an embarrassment for all concerned, but, when De Sica died at the end of the year, it was Ponti who paid for his funeral, an acknowledgement of his contribution to Loren's career, as well as his pivotal role in Italian cinema.

In 1975, during what Italians term the anni di piombo ("years of lead"), Ponti survived a kidnapping attempt when his car was ambushed and riddled with bullets on the Appian Way. A second attempt later in the year was also foiled. In 1977, Ponti's villa and offices were raided by police, and the following year a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of currency smuggling and the illegal possession of archaeological artefacts. Tried in absentia in 1979, Ponti was found guilty and sentenced to four years' penal servitude and fined 22 billion lire (some £12.5m). After much legal manoeuvring (and rumours of a deal with the government), Ponti was finally cleared in 1990, regaining possession of both his villa and his art collection, which had been seized 12 years previously.

By 1980, Ponti had effectively retired from film production, leaving the day-to-day running of his affairs to Alex, his son from his first marriage. That year, Loren appeared as herself in the television movie Sophia Loren: her own story, in which Ponti was played by Rip Torn. Amateur psychologists were amused to note that Torn was tall, in possession of a full head of hair and free of spectacles.

John Exshaw

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'