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Prolific director Dino De Laurentiis dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 10:00 PM

Dino De Laurentiis was a prolific Italian-born movie producer of mind-boggling range whose credits spanned the spectrum of quality, from Oscar winners "La Strada" and "Nights of Cabiria" to the exploitation fare of "Barbarella," "Death Wish" and the Madonna vehicle "Body of Evidence."

Mr. De Laurentiis had a role in making, by his estimate, hundreds of films, collaborating with directors including Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, David Lynch, John Huston, Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman and Sam Raimi.

Working largely outside the studio system, Mr. De Laurentiis was an early leader in the concept of international co-productions, in essence raising money by preselling distribution rights around the world. Sharing the cost of a film was especially appealing to U.S. studios, which had started to crumble in the 1950s under the weight of more independent production.

Mr. De Laurentiis, 91, who died of undisclosed causes Nov. 10 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., became one of the world's leading producers in a career spanning seven decades. He was always balancing three balls in the air: high art, down-market scintillation and middle-of-the-road commerce, like the taut spy drama "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) with Robert Redford.

Mr. De Laurentiis was a creative force and a consummate dealmaker, an espresso-and-cigarette-fortified whirlwind of diminutive stature who cajoled, charmed and hustled to get movies made.

About 10 years ago, when he couldn't land his first choices as director and star for a sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs," he characteristically shrugged it off. "The pope dies, you get another pope," he explained.

This unflappable approach proved immensely profitable to Mr. De Laurentiis, but it also led to mixed artistic success.

For every "La Strada" (1954), "Nights of Cabiria" (1957) and "Serpico" (1973) - widely regarded as superior dramas - there was also "Barbarella" (1968) with an underdressed Jane Fonda, "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) with a grunting Arnold Schwarzenegger and "Death Wish" (1974) with Charles Bronson as a vigilante.

In one year alone, 1977, he produced "The Serpent's Egg," quite possibly the most depressing of Bergman's dramas, and "Orca," with Richard Harris hunting down a killer whale.

Mr. De Laurentiis launched his career with "Bitter Rice" (1949), a powerful story of love and ruin set in the Po Valley rice fields, but settled into a run of ponderous, epic-scale productions, including "War and Peace" (1956), "Barabbas" (1962), "The Bible" (1966), "Dune" (1984) and the risible remake of "King Kong" (1976) with Jessica Lange.

"Making movies is all about instinct," Mr. De Laurentiis told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "Nobody taught Picasso how to paint - he learned for himself. And nobody can teach you to be a producer. You can learn the mechanics, but you can't learn what's right about a script or a director or an actor. That comes from instinct and intuition. It comes from inside you."

One of seven children, Agostino De Laurentiis was born Aug. 8, 1919, in Torre Annunziata, a town near Naples. His father was a miller and noodle manufacturer, and he resisted efforts to stay in the family business. He was drawn to movies.

"If you lived in a provincial town like Torre Annunziata, where there was nothing to do in the evening but go to the movies with your friends, the cinema was a world of fantasy. I had always been in love with it," he said.

In the late 1930s, he left for Rome and was a movie extra, stagehand and director's assistant. He left Rome for the movie-making center of Turin, where he felt he could make a greater impact as a young, inexperienced producer.

After brief army service, he went right back into film production, making a range of melodramas in the slick Hollywood manner as well as the popular "neorealist" style, a socially conscious tradition that often used nonprofessional actors and was filmed on location to convey immediacy and truth.

Mr. De Laurentiis's most notable early success was "Bitter Rice." It was shot in a documentary motif and featured model-turned actress Silvana Mangano as a rice harvester who falls for a ne'er-do-well. If some reviewers found the drama overheated, it nonetheless proved a commercial success for its raw display of sexual passion.

Mr. De Laurentiis wed Mangano while making the movie. They had four children; one, their son Federico, was killed in a plane crash in 1981. Mangano died in 1989.

Mr. De Laurentiis later had two more children with his second wife, producer Martha Schumacher, who survives. One of his grandchildren is the TV chef Giada De Laurentiis.

In the early 1950s, Mr. De Laurentiis forged a producing partnership with Carlo Ponti. They gave financial backing to a variety of fare, from comedies with veteran entertainer Toto to Rossellini's "Europa '51," a grim drama with Ingrid Bergman.

Ambitions to reach a wider market led Ponti and Mr. De Laurentiis to such large-budget movies as "War and Peace," with an international cast and crew headed by Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. They also produced a string of overwrought dramas starring Mangano, including "Ulysses" (1954), with Kirk Douglas in the title role.

They achieved a critical breakthrough with Fellini's "La Strada," with Anthony Quinn as a traveling strongman who abuses his wife, played by Giulietta Masina. "La Strada" won a best foreign-language film Oscar and transformed Quinn, previously considered a lightweight, into a dramatic star.

The De Laurentiis-Ponti relationship dissolved as Ponti was busy promoting the career of his wife, Sophia Loren. Mr. De Laurentiis went on to back Fellini's "The Nights of Cabiria" (1957), with Masina as a virtuous streetwalker. The film won a best foreign film Oscar.

By the early 1960s, Mr. De Laurentiis had started a sprawling studio near Rome, Dinocitta (Dino City), and made distribution arrangements with U.S. studios to help finance such historical spectacles as "Barabbas" and John Huston's $15 million Old Testament drama "The Bible" with George C. Scott, Richard Harris and Ava Gardner.

To avoid restrictive Italian tax laws, Mr. De Laurentiis sold his studio, settled in the United States by the early 1970s and eventually became an American citizen. He found a gold mine with Charles Bronson action fare while also working on Lumet's "Serpico," starring Al Pacino as a New York police officer who unveils corruption, and Pollack's "Three Days of the Condor."

His other films included Richard Fleischer's "Mandingo" (1975), Milos Forman's "Ragtime" (1981) and John Wayne's final movie, "The Shootist" (1976).

For much of the 1980s, Mr. De Laurentiis owned and operated a film studio in Wilmington, N.C., where he toggled between earnest dramas, eccentric fare like Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986) and a run of movies based on Stephen King stories including "The Dead Zone" and "Firestarter."

Mr. De Laurentiis's fortunes waxed and waned, not only with investments in expensive duds like "Hurricane" (1979) and "Dune," but also with short-lived efforts like upscale delis he started in New York and Los Angeles, an outgrowth of his passionate interest in Italian cooking.

Mr. De Laurentiis received the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2001 for his body of work.

Director John Milius once summed up Mr. De Laurentiis's vast legacy: "Some were good. Some were bad. All were overblown."

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