Sergio Leone Profile
Leone (1929-1989) was born in Rome, the son of pioneer film director Vincenzo Leone (known as Roberto Roberti) and actress Edvige Valcarenghi (known as Bice Waleran). He began working in the film industry at age 18. In the 1950s he wrote screenplays for "sword and sandal" epics popular at the time, and worked as an assistant director on Hollywood epics filmed at Rome's Cinecittà Studios such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). Leone got his break as a director when Mario Bonnard became ill during the making of The Last Days of Pompeii, starring Steve Reeves, and he stepped in to complete the epic. His solo directing debut was The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), starring Rory Calhoun, with which Leone proved he could confidently create a low-budget Italian epic that had the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Leone helped create the spaghetti Western with his definitive, trend-setting A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These gritty, laconic, starkly violent films, heavily influenced by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics, set a new tone for Westerns (even though Leone had never seen the American West) and struck a nerve with audiences. This "Man With No Name" trilogy also established Clint Eastwood, then known mostly for his roles on American television, as an international superstar. Ennio Morricone's haunting music also played a major role in lending freshness and distinction to the films.
Leone finally came to the U.S. for some location shooting in Monument Valley, Utah, when he directed Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for Paramount Pictures. This ambitious Western, which Leone planned as his masterwork, was otherwise shot in Almería, Spain and at Cinecitta in Rome. Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale starred in the film, a violent, dreamlike reflection of the mythology of the Old West. Paramount edited the film drastically for its American release and it was not a success here, although it was well-received in Europe and its reputation has grown over the years.
Leone's films of the 1970s included Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971), a Mexican-Revolution action film starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger; and My Name is Nobody (1973), with Henry Fonda in a memorable performance as a fading gunslinger. After turning down the chance to direct The Godfather (1972), Leone turned his attention to his own opus of American gangsters, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Once again, a brilliant movie was butchered by the studio, and Once Upon a Time in America did not receive its due in the U.S. until the DVD release of the four-hour original print. The final film directed by Leone, it is now generally regarded as his masterpiece.
Always greatly admired by other directors, Leone has been cited as an influence upon the work of, among others, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.
by Roger Fristoe