It is Clint Eastwood, of course, who is particularly remembered as the lone gunman of spaghetti westerns, the outsider and amoral protagonist, thanks to his work with Sergio Leone.
But Leone made only a handful of spaghetti westerns; by 1980 nearly 600 had been made in Italy, largely featuring European actors such as Franco Nero and “Terence Hill” (Mario Girotti). One of the best known Italians was the Giuliano Gemma, veteran of more than 100 films, 20 of them spaghetti westerns. Whereas Eastwood traded on the ambiguity of his “Man with no Name” character, Gemma frequently played the good guy.
He is probably best known as the title character in Giorgio Ferroni’s A Pistol for Ringo, in which he is given the task of rescuing the fiancée of an army major. Gemma, who was also known as the “King of the Spaghetti Westerns” and “Il Pistolero Nazionale”, also became known as “Angel Face”, after the song that features heavily in Ringo. That nickname stuck thanks to his matinee-idol looks, though as a child in 1944 he had encountered a bomb which exploded in his face, leaving him with scars on his left cheek.
Gemma was born in Rome in 1938 and spent his childhood in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. He developed a passion for the cinema, and was a particular fan of Burt Lancaster. He was a keen sportsman with an interest in boxing, swimming, horse-riding and gymnastics, and decided to develop a career as a stuntman. He had little difficulty obtaining work at Cinecitta Studios, and his first acting opportunity came in Dino Rosi’s 1958 film Venezia, la luna e tu (Venice, the moon and you).
He also played an uncredited centurion in a bath house scene in Ben Hur, and this led to Duccio Tessari offering him a part in Arrivano I Titani (English title: My Son, the Hero), an early sword-and-sandal film in which he played a clever Titan warrior. He then played one of the generals in Luchino Visconti’s classic The Leopard, and it was this role that led him to spaghetti westerns.
He became friends with Mario Girotti, who had adopted the name Terence Hill and introduced Gemma to the genre. In 1965 he appeared in Adios Gringo, and the success of A Pistol for Ringo led to The Return of Ringo, a revenge western. Probably his best western was Day of Anger, directed by Tonino Valerii, in which he appeared alongside Lee Van Cleef as a road sweeper named Scott Mary, who becomes an apprentice gunslinger and upsets the balance of power in the town.
A succession of spaghetti westerns followed, until the mid-1970s, when the genre began to lose popularity. He continued to do much work for Italian television. He was friends with Sergio Leone, but never appeared in one of his films, probably the reason he never broke through into the American film market.
In 1976, however, he won a David di Donatello award for his role as Major Matiss in Valerio Zurlini’s acclaimed Il Deserto dei Tartari (Desert of the Tartars). This award-winner was based on the novel by Dino Buzzanti, fand eatured a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and cinematography which echoed the visual style of Giorgio De Chirico. Gemma paid tribute to Zurlini at this year’s Canne’s Film Festival.
His lead role in Pasquale Squitieri’s Il Prefetto di Ferro (1977, (internationally released as I Am the Law and The Iron Prefect) was one of his best performances, as Cesare Mori, an Italian prefect – the representative of the state in an Italian province – based on the book by Arrigo Petacco. He starred alongside Claudia Cardinale and the film won a David di Donatello for Best Film.
Recently Gemma’s work has been recognised and acclaimed on the festival circuit, and he has received many tributes and honorary awards at, for example, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Italy’s Globi d’Oro (the Italian version of the Golden Globes), the Capri-Hollywood Film Fest, the Nastri d’Agento (Silver Ribbons) awards and the Giffoni Film Festival. He was preparing to play one of the leading roles in Miguel Cruz Carretero’s period romantic drama Deauville, which had just gone into pre-production before his death. His final appearance came year as a hotel manager in Woody Allan’s To Rome With Love, and he also featured last year in a web comic, Man Born Again.
Gemma’s daughter Vera, who followed him into acting, recounted an occasion when her father visited Japan, whose cinema-going public have always had a fondness for the spaghetti western. He was, she said, stared at on every street corner. He traded on his reputation there by allowing his name to be used for the clothing line of a renowed Japanese fashion house, and the motor company Suzuki introduced two types of scooters which were named after him – the Suzuki-Gemma.
Gemma also established a reputation as a sculptor, an art form about which he was passionate and for which he received some acclaim, exhibiting in many major cities. Gemma died following a car crash in Cerveteri, a small town about 25 miles north-west of Rome. He was taken to a hospital in Citivecchia, where he died of his injuries.
Giuliano Gemma, actor: born Rome 2 September 1938; married Baba Richerme (two daughters); died 1 October 2013.