Dino De Laurentiis: Film producer crucial to Italy's cinematic resurgence who also enjoyed Hollywood success

Friday 12 November 2010 01:00

Few producers in the history of cinema could stake a better claim to F Scott Fitzgerald's title of "the last tycoon" than Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian mogul whose career spanned more than 60 years and whose vast output of films made him a legendary figure both in Europe and America. Best known for his flamboyant production of War and Peace with AudreyHepburn, and the Biblical epics Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn, and The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), directed by and starring John Huston, De Laurentiis was also an important figure in the Italian film industry's postwar renaissance, a fact acknowledged by Federico Fellini, who noted: "Paradoxically, Italian cinema was healthier during the period of the great adventurers, people like Peppino Amato, Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti and Angelo Rizzoli, who were successful at producing films in the grand style, which stood comparison with Hollywood productions."

Dino De Laurentiis was born in the small coastal town of Torre Annunziata, near Naples, the son of a pasta-maker. Following a brief spell as a truck driver, he moved to Rome in 1937 to study acting at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Italy's leading film school. After brief spells as an extra, an actor – he appeared in a small role in Mario Camerini's Batticuore (Palpitations, 1938), an assistant director, and a production manager, De Laurentiis served notice of his ambition by founding his own production company, Cine Real, in 1941 at the age of 22, before joining Riccardo Gualino's Lux Film as an executive producer the following year, where he supervised a number of hits, including Alberto Lattuada's Il bandito (1946), and Camerini's La figlia del capitano (The Captain's Daughter, 1947).

In 1948, De Laurentiis enjoyed worldwide success with Giuseppe DeSantis's Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), a lurid blend of melodrama and neorealism which made much of the scantily clad charms of leading lady Silvana Mangano as a migrant worker desired by both Vittorio Gassman and RafVallone. That same year, De Laurentiis expanded his operations withthe acquisition of Safir Studios and the creation of a new company, Teatri della Farnesina.

Following his marriage to Mangano in 1949, De Laurentiis entered into partnership with Carlo Ponti, a lawyer and former colleague at Lux, to form Ponti-De Laurentiis Cinematografica in 1950. Over the next seven years, their company was at the forefront of the Italian film industry, backing nearly every type of movie, from the arthouse ventures of Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini (the latter's La strada, 1954, and Nights of Cabiria, 1957, both collected Academy Awards for best foreign film), to the enormously popular comedies of the Neapolitan comic Toto.

However, it was De Laurentiis's ability to attract American stars and investment that ensured his position as the leading Italian producer of his day. His films of Ulysses (1954), with Kirk Douglas, and War and Peace (1956) were long-cherished projects (De Laurentiis had determined to film both works after reading them on Capri in 1943 during his period of military service) which helped earn Cinecitta studios in Rome the unofficial title of "Hollywood on the Tiber", as American companies took advantage of the low costs and high-quality technical services to reinvest their Italian earnings in co-production deals. So greatly was De Laurentiis himself identified with this development, that a joke soon circulated in Hollywood to the effect that "a Dino De Laurentiis Production is a Hollywood team on location in Rome".

His higher profile, however, led to friction with Ponti, who in 1957 married Sophia Loren and departed for America. De Laurentiis, the morecreative of the pair, carried on in his accustomed manner, opening theDe Laurentiis Studios (quickly dubbed "Dinocitta") on the outskirts of Rome, and producing or co-producing films as varied as Eduardo De Filippo'sFortunella (1958), Mario Monicelli'sLa grande guerra (The Great War, 1959), Guy Hamilton's The Best of Enemies (1961) with David Niven, Carlo Lizzani's The Hills Run Red (1966), Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik (1967), LuchinoVisconti's The Stranger (1967), Edward Dmytryk's The Battle For Anzio(1968) with Robert Mitchum, and Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968). In addition, De Laurentiis oversaw virtually all of popular comic star Alberto Sordi's best films, made between 1960 and 1965.

In the early 1970s, following a number of reverses that included his gargantuan Italo-Russian co-production Waterloo (1970), with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, and faced with rising costs, De Laurentiis was forced to sell Dinocitta to the Italian government. In a typically audacious move, he relocated to Hollywood, where he was soon enjoying success as the executive producer of Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973) with Al Pacino, Michael Winner's The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1974), both with Charles Bronson, and Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976), which was John Wayne's last film.

That same year, 1976, De Laurentiis set up a new company, the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, based principally in North Carolina, for which he produced a typically hit-and-miss selection. Notorious financial fiascos such as his entirely superfluousremakes of King Kong (1976) and The Hurricane (1979), and David Lynch's sci-fi epic Dune (1984) were balanced to some extent by reasonably popular efforts like Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon (1980) and John Milius's Conan the Barbarian (1982), while critical plaudits were won for Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981), Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), and Curtis Hanson's The Bedroom Window (1987). But by 1988, and in the wake of yet another simian disaster in the shape of King Kong Lives! (1986), the failures outstripped the successes to such an extent that De Laurentiis was forced to resign from DEG, which then filed for bankruptcy.

Undaunted, he returned to Hollywood, setting up offices in Universal Studios from where, fuelled by espresso (from his own imported machine) and three cigars a day, he presided over the Sylvester Stallone vehicles Assassins (1995) and Daylight (1996), as well as Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001), the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. In 2002, he oversaw Anthony Hopkins's final portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon before attempting to extend the series with the unsuccessful Hannibal Rising in 2007.

One of his last productions was an adaptation of Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Last Legion, starring Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley. After more than six decades in the film business, De Laurentiis's evident delight in his chosen field remained undiminished: "Cinema", he once said, "is something you have to love with your guts. Otherwise, forget it. It demands 100 per cent of your attention. But it's the biggest toy that adults have, and that's why it will never die."

John Exshaw

Agostino De Laurentiis, film producer: born Torre Annunziata, Italy 8 August 1919; married 1949 Silvana Mangano (one son, deceased, and three daughters; marriage dissolved); Martha Schumacher (two daughters); died Los Angeles 11November 2010.

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