Dario Fo, an Italian comic actor, playwright, satirist and self-described jester whose satirical works angered the Catholic Church and his country’s political, military and industrial elite but also earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, died Oct. 13 at a hospital in Milan. He was 90.
He had a progressive pulmonary disease, hospital officials told the Associated Press.
When Mr. Fo received the Nobel in 1997, some literary experts were aghast and admitted they had never heard of him. Many writers who were better known, including V.S. Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro and Gunter Grass, had not yet received the prize.
Instead, Mr. Fo became one of the most unlikely Nobel laureates in literature — until the very day he died, when the prize was awarded to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. At various times, Mr. Fo was arrested, banned from Italian television and prevented from entering the United States because of suspected support of terrorist groups.
In awarding the Nobel to Mr. Fo, the Swedish Academy noted that he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”
The official Vatican newspaper, long at odds with Mr. Fo’s depictions of religious authority, noted, “Giving the prize to an actor who is also an author of debatable texts — leaving aside every moral consideration — has surpassed all imagination.”
When he received the prize, Mr. Fo professed to be as surprised as anyone else. “It’s not bad at all getting a Nobel,” he said, “and making so many old fossils explode with rage.”
He was the author of more than 40 plays, most with overtly political and satirical themes. He acted in most of them, often with his wife and collaborator, Franca Rame.
It was sometimes difficult to characterize Mr. Fo’s work, which had few English-language counterparts. He drew comparisons to such disparate figures as Lenny Bruce, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and the Monty Python comedy troupe. Tall and paunchy, Mr. Fo was once described as looking like “a thinking man’s Rodney Dangerfield.”
Others said Mr. Fo was the heir of a much older dramatic line, deriving from itinerant clowns and bards who roamed across medieval Europe. He also was influenced by the satirical comedies of French playwright Molière and by Angelo Beolco, the 16th-century Italian actor-playwright known as Il Ruzzante, who is considered the father of the commedia dell’arte tradition.
Some of Mr. Fo’s earliest works from the 1950s, such as “A Madhouse for the Sane,” were bold satires of Italy’s political life, in which fascist sympathizers from World War II were still active. A 1959 farce, “Archangels Don’t Play Pinball,” was an absurdist sendup of governmental bureaucracy.
In 1962, after writing and appearing in a satirical sketch — in which an obese woman visiting a meatpacking plant falls into a grinder and winds up as 150 cans of meat — Mr. Fo and his wife were effectively banned from Italian television for more than a decade.
They later founded a theater cooperative called Nuova Scena with ties to the Communist Party. The group toured Italy with satirical plays and pantomimes before collapsing because of internal feuding.
In 1969, Mr. Fo premiered one of his best-known works, “Mistero buffo” (“Comic Mystery”), in which he lampooned the Catholic Church and the Italian government with outrageous retellings of the gospels — often delivered in a comical form of gibberish. When he finally returned to Italian TV to perform the play in 1977, the Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television.”
Another of Mr. Fo’s seminal works, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” appeared in 1970 and focused on an actual event in Milan, in which a man in police custody died after falling or being pushed from a fourth-story window. Mr. Fo portrayed a character known as “the maniac,” who exposed the police coverup.
The 1974 play “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” featured Rame as an overburdened housewife who strips the shelves of a supermarket in what could be called a class-conscious farce about the economy. These plays and others were performed throughout Europe, making Mr. Fo one of the most widely produced dramatists of his time, even if some critics didn’t consider him a “serious” writer.
Dario Fo was born March 24, 1926 in Sangiano, near Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. His father was a railroad stationmaster and amateur actor.
As a child, Mr. Fo accompanied his grandfather around the countryside as he sold vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. To appeal to customers, his grandfather told exaggerated and humorous stories, sometimes spiced with local gossip. It was a formative influence on the future playwright.
During World War II, Mr. Fo served in the Italian army before deserting to join the resistance. His parents helped smuggle Jewish scientists and escaped British prisoners out of Italy.
Mr. Fo studied painting and architecture in Milan before joining a theater group in the early 1950s, originally as a set designer before beginning to write and perform. In the troupe, he met Rame, whose family history in the theater dated back centuries. They married in 1954.
In 1973, Rame was kidnapped by a right-wing militia group, tortured and raped before being released. She later used the experience for a dramatic monologue. She died in 2013. Survivors include a son, writer Jacopo Fo.
For years denied entry to the United States because of his political associations, Mr. Fo was finally admitted in 1986 after the State Department granted him a visa. He performed “Mistero buffo” in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
He continued to write and paint at feverish pace until shortly before his death, including a 2002 memoir and a 2009 biography of his wife. His first novel, “The Pope’s Daughter,” a reimagined life of Lucrezia Borgia, appeared in 2015.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Mr. Fo praised Molière and Il Ruzzante for writing about the fears, desperation and laughter of ordinary people. “Their major, unforgivable fault,” he said, “was this: In telling these things, they made people laugh. Laughter does not please the mighty.”