Dino De Laurentiis, one of the last great, intrepid film producers who with unmatched showmanship shepherded movies as varied as “La Strada” and “Barbarella,” has died. He was 91.
De Laurentiis helped build the Italian film industry during the heyday of its “new wave,” oversaw seminal American films such as “Serpico” and “Blue Velvet,” and pursued blockbusters in flops like “Dune” and critical fiascos such as the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” which nearly ended the career of a young Jessica Lange.
In producing more than 500 wide-ranging films over six decades, he presided over an incredible mix of high and low. That the same filmmaker could be involved with Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Conan the Barbarian” would seem to contradict normal understanding of taste. Instead, he was irrevocably drawn to the spectacle of the movies.
An entrepreneur, De Laurentiis pioneered the way films were sold internationally — and he did it all in grand style. The sprawling studio complex he built on the outskirts of Rome he dubbed Dinocitta (Dino City).
“The extraordinary thing that Dino taught all of us is the true figure of the independent producer,” De Laurentiis’ nephew, Aurelio De Laurentiis, a noted Italian film producer, said Thursday. “He always behaved in the U.S. as a major studio, even though he was a one-man show.”
Raffaella De Laurentiis, the producer’s daughter, said her father died Wednesday night at his home in Beverly Hills.
“He was my biggest champion in life and a constant source for wisdom and advice. I will miss him dearly,” granddaughter Giada De Laurentiis, a star chef and host on Food Network, said today.
Raised outside of Naples and born into his father’s pasta-making business, De Laurentiis quickly realized that his destiny was in moviemaking. He was central to the rise of his native country’s film industry, which in the 1950s rose to international prominence as the Italian New Wave.
One of six children, he was born in Torre Annunziata on the Bay of Naples on Aug. 8, 1919. When he was 16, he went to Rome to study acting and produced his first film when he was 18. A few years later, he started his own production company in Turin. The serious success began after World War II, starting with “Bitter Rice,” in 1948, which launched the career of his first wife, Silvana Mangano.
In 1950, De Laurentiis went into business with another rising director, Carlo Ponti. They soon dominated the Italian movie business, monopolizing top stars such as Mangano, Sophia Loren (who later married Ponti) and Marcello Mastroianni. Their first international production was the epic “War and Peace” (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer) in 1955.
With the lure of huge salaries, he often imported international movie stars to boost a film’s prospects. For Fellini’s “La Strada,” which won the Academy Award for foreign language film in 1957, he persuaded Anthony Quinn to come to Rome. De Laurentiis also produced Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” which won the foreign film Oscar a year later.
At Dinocitta, he married Hollywood stars with spectacle: “Barrabas” (Quinn), “The Bible” (George C. Scott, Ava Gardner), “Anzio” (Robert Mitchum), “Waterloo” (Rod Steiger). He also made more offbeat fare, such as Roger Vadim’s sex romp, “Barbarella” (Jane Fonda).
Paolo Baratta, head of the Venice Film Festival, which gave De Laurentiis a lifetime achievement award in 2003, called De Laurentiis “one of the most important producers in the history of film worldwide,” and said that film has lost “one of its great protagonists.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 2001.
De Laurentiis was one of the first producers to understand the box-office potential of foreign audiences, and helped invent international co-productions, raising money by pre-selling distribution rights outside North America.
Throughout his career, he alternated lavish, big-budget productions with less commercial films by directors such as Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, and he often packaged the blockbusters with art films to secure distribution for the smaller films.
His began to move away from his base in Italy in the 1960s and he eventually closed Dinocitta in 1972, relocating the studio in Wilmington, N.C. He dubbed his production company the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
He moved to New York and became an American citizen in 1986, but he never lost his thick Italian accent and tried to spend a month in Capri and Rome each year.
The Oscar-winning “Serpico,” in 1973 with Al Pacino, was De Laurentiis’ Hollywood debut. Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish,” Robert Redford’s “Three Days on the Condor” and John Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist,” followed.
So did notable failures, including “King Kong” and later “King Kong Lives.” “Hurricane,” in 1979, was not only an expensive failure but generated another one: a hotel on its Bora Bora location.
Personal tragedy also took its toll. In 1981, his son Federico was killed in a plane crash. The strain of the loss helped end De Laurentiis’ marriage to Mangano. They were divorced in 1988, the same year De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went into bankruptcy, finished off by the flop of “King Kong Lives.”
Yet De Laurentiis, close to 70, was undaunted and started over. Within two years, he had a new wife, 29-year-old Martha Schumacher, formed a new company and started producing moneymakers again. In his 80s, he snapped up the movie rights to “Hannibal,” novelist Thomas Harris’ sequel to hit “The Silence of the Lambs” (Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster).
“My philosophy is very simple,” De Laurentiis once said. “To feel young, you must work as long as you can.”
Survivors include three daughters with Mangano — Rafaela, Francesca and Veronica — and two with Schumacher: Carolina and Dina. Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.
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