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Sergio Leone

Occupation: Film director, screenwriter, producer

January 3, 1929 - April 30, 1969, Rome, Italy

    Born in Rome, Sergio Leone was the son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran). Growing up, Leone was a classmate of his future musical collaborator Ennio Morricone for a time. After watching his father work on film sets, Leone began his own career in the film industry at the age of 18 after dropping out of law studies at the university.

    Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the 'sword and sandal' historical epics, which were popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions shot at the CinecittÓ Studios in Rome, notably Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur, which were financially backed by the American studios.

    When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic, The Last Days of Pompeii, starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when he made his solo directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes in 1961, Leone was well-equipped to produce low-budget films which looked like larger budget Hollywood movies.

    In the early 1960s, historical epics fell out of favor with most audiences, but Leone had shifted his attention to a sub-genre which came to be known as the "Spaghetti Western," which owed its origin to the American Western. His film A Fistful of Dollars was based upon Akira Kurosawa's Edo-era samurai adventure Yojimbo and Leone's film elicited a legal challenge from the Japanese director. A Fistful of Dollars is also notable for its establishment of Clint Eastwood as a star, who until that time had been an American television actor with very few credited film roles.

    The look of A Fistful of Dollars was established by its Spanish locations, which presented a violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. The film paid tribute to traditional American western movies, but significantly departed from them in plot, storyline, characterization and mood. Leone gains credit for one great breakthrough in the western genre still followed today: in traditional western films, heroes and villains alike looked as if they had just stepped out of a fashion magazine, with clearly drawn moral opposites, even down to the hero wearing a white hat and the villain wearing a black hat. Leone's characters were, in contrast, more 'realistic' and complex: usually 'lone wolves' in their behavior; they rarely shaved, looked dirty, would sweat profusely, and there was a strong suggestion of criminal behavior. The characters were also morally ambiguous by appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation would demand. Some critics have noted the irony of an Italian director who could not speak English, and had never even seen the American Old West, almost single-handedly redefining the typical vision of the American cowboy. According to Christopher Frayling's book Something to do with Death, Leone knew a great deal about the American Old West. It fascinated him when he was young, which carried into his adulthood and his films.

    Leone's next two films, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, completed what has come to be known as the Man with No Name trilogy (a.k.a. the Dollars Trilogy), with each film being more financially successful and more technically accomplished than its predecessor. The films featured innovative music scores by Ennio Morricone, who worked closely with Leone in devising the themes. Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone's music ongoing.

    Based on the success of The Man with No Name trilogy, Leone was invited to the United States in 1967 to direct Once Upon a Time in the West for Paramount Pictures. The film was shot mostly in AlmerÝa, Spain and CinecittÓ in Rome. It was also briefly shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The film starred Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. Once Upon a Time in the West emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American Old West, with many stylistic references to iconic western films. The film's script was written by Leone and his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, it was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its low box-office results in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe, grossing nearly three times its $5 million budget among French audiences, and highly praised amongst North American film students. It has come to be regarded by many as Leone's best film.

    After Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone directed Duck, You Sucker! in 1971. Leone had originally planned to just produce the film, but due to artistic differences from then-director Peter Bogdanovich, Leone was asked to direct the film instead. Duck, You Sucker! is a Mexican Revolution action drama, starring James Coburn, as an Irish revolutionary, and Rod Steiger, as a Mexican bandit who is conned into becoming a revolutionary.

    Leone continued to produce, and on occasion, step in to re-shoot scenes in other films. One of these films was My Name is Nobody directed by Tonino Valerii a comedy western film that poked fun at the Spaghetti Western genre. It starred Henry Fonda as an old gunslinger who watched his old West fade away before his very eyes as he played his guitar. Terence Hill also starred in the film as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying West with style.

    Leone's other productions included A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe; The Cat and The Toy. Leone also produced three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone, which were Fun Is Beautiful, Bianco, Rosso e Verdone (White, Red and Verdone) and Troppo Forte (Great!). During this period, Leone also directed various award-winning TV commercials for European television.

    Leone turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather, in favor of working on another gangster story he had conceived earlier. He devoted ten years to this project, based on the novel The Hoods by former mobster Harry Grey, which focused on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. The four-hour finished film, Once Upon a Time in America, featured Robert De Niro and James Woods. It was a meditation on another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy coexistence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship. Feeling the final cut was too long, Warner Bros. recut it drastically for the American market, abandoning its flashback structure for a linear narrative. Lasting over just two hours, the recut version shown in North America received much criticism and flopped. The original version, released in the rest of the world, received better box office returns and a positive critical response. When the original version of the film was released on DVD in the USA, it finally gained major critical acclaim, with many critics hailing the film as a masterpiece.

    According to biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Leone was deeply hurt by the studio-imposed editing and poor commercial reception of Once Upon a Time in America in North America. It would be his last film.

    Leone died on April 30, 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60. Leone was infamous for his compulsive eating, which led him to become obese. Before his death in 1989, Leone was part way through planning a film on the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.

    In his later years, Leone had a falling out of sorts with Clint Eastwood, his most famous actor. When Leone directed Once Upon a Time in America, he commented that Robert De Niro was a real actor, unlike Eastwood. However, the two made amends and reconciled before Leone's death. In 1992, Eastwood directed Unforgiven, a revisionist western drama for which he won an Oscar for best director, as well as Best Picture. Leone was one of the two directors whom Eastwood dedicated his award to, the other was Don Siegel who directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry. (The film contains a dedication "To Sergio & Don" before the end credits roll.)

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