The bald, roly-poly Ponti met Loren about 1950, when she was a 15-year-old beauty contest finalist. He was an established producer who had given early career boosts to such Italian beauties as Alida Valli and Gina Lollobrigida.
Mr. Ponti and Loren, more than 20 years his junior, became attached romantically but were not married until 1957, when Loren said she was seduced by one of her co-stars, Cary Grant.
Mr. Ponti immediately divorced his first wife and, through his lawyers, engineered a proxy Mexican marriage to Loren that neither the Catholic Church nor the Italian government recognized. A Vatican newspaper declared them “public sinners,” prompting them to become French citizens and remarry in 1966. Italian bigamy charges were dropped, and the Pontis were credited with helping create the momentum to end the country’s strict divorce laws.
Meanwhile, under Mr. Ponti’s tutelage, Loren blossomed into an international sex symbol, a Neapolitan emblem of hourglass sensuality.
He produced the bulk of her films, starting with forgettable comedies and dramas that showed off her figure and got her noticed by Hollywood. He produced “Two Women” (1962), for which Loren won an Academy Award for best actress as a mother struggling during wartime, as well as her later star showcases that had far less critical success.
To many, the Pontis were in the same public league as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, another pair of smoldering jet-setters. Loren professed publicly her love for Mr. Ponti and said that one of his finest traits was discretion. He rarely spoke about his films, much less his life with Loren.
At times, Mr. Ponti courted controversy with court charges linked to disputes over his transfer of money out of Italy. By the late 1980s, the Italian supreme court cleared him of any wrongdoing and unfroze his assets. He was long settled in Switzerland, though the Pontis had homes all over the world.
Mr. Ponti was born in Magenta, near Milan. After graduating from the University of Milan, he practiced law before entering film production in the late 1930s. He said a client of his firm involved in motion pictures left the country and asked Mr. Ponti to take over one of his productions.
His first production credit was “Old-Fashioned World,” a historical drama made in 1941 and directed by the prolific Italian director, writer and actor Mario Soldati. A few years later, Mr. Ponti produced a version of the Victor Hugo novel “Les Miserables” with popular leading man Gino Cervi as the hunted Jean Valjean.
He expanded his portfolio to include dramas in the neo-realist tradition of location shooting and untrained actors. This included “Without Pity” (1948), about the affair between a black American GI and an Italian woman.
In 1950, he formed a producing partnership with Dino De Laurentiis. They gave financial backing to a variety of fare, from comedies with veteran entertainer Toto to Roberto Rossellini’s “Europa ‘51,” a grim drama with Ingrid Bergman.
Ambitions to reach a wider market led Mr. Ponti and De Laurentiis to such large-budget movies as “War and Peace” (1956), with an international cast and crew headed by Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn.
They also signed a three-picture deal with American screen actor Anthony Quinn that featured him initially in sword-and-sandal epics “Attila” and “Ulysses.” The third collaboration proved one of the more enduring pictures of cinema, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954), with Quinn as a traveling strongman who abuses his wife, played by Giulietta Masina.
“La Strada” won a best foreign film Oscar and transformed Quinn, previously considered a light-weight, into a dramatic star.
Mr. Ponti and De Laurentiis also featured Masina as a virtuous streetwalker in “The Nights of Cabiria” (1957), which also won a best foreign film Oscar.
By the late 1950s, Mr. Ponti was busy promoting his wife’s American career, but he simultaneously worked in Europe on many films regarded as classics of the French New Wave, a cinema style of deliberately jagged storytelling technique that also paid homage to Hollywood genres. Mr. Ponti produced Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Woman Is a Woman” and “Contempt” in the early 1960s as well as films by New Wave proponents Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol.
He funded Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”; Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and “The Passenger” (the second starring Jack Nicholson); and “Boccaccio ‘70,” which featured segments directed by De Sica, Fellini, Mario Monicelli and Luchino Visconti. Loren appeared in one of the scenes as the “prize” in a raffle.
Mr. Ponti produced director Jiri Menzel’s Czech-made “Closely Watched Trains” (1966), another winner of the best foreign language Oscar. The film, set during World War II, bravely satirized the contemporary Communist regime.
He had earlier given financial support to director Milos Forman’s “The Firemen’s Ball,” also a Czech film that attacked the Soviet bureaucracy. After seeing the final version, Mr. Ponti rescinded his $65,000 investment, and Forman never forgave him. Barrandov Studios, which co-funded the movie, threatened to have Forman jailed for “economic sabotage.”
“Ponti hated the film, though his official pretext was that it was two minutes shorter than it should have been as per contract,” said Forman, who later won an Oscar for directing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Only a last-minute investment by French directors Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri saved the project.
Mr. Ponti’s reputation for exerting strong control over projects led to many unpleasant encounters with filmmakers. David Lean, who directed “Doctor Zhivago,” once noted how he quashed what he felt was Mr. Ponti’s desire to cast Loren as the leading woman, Lara Antipova.
Lean made it clear he would start the film showing Lara as an innocent schoolgirl of 16, adding, “If anyone can convince me she’s a virgin, I’ll let her play the part.” That apparently was enough to dissuade Mr. Ponti, and Julie Christie got the role.
Mr. Ponti worked sporadically into the 1990s, all the while traveling with Loren in sumptuous style. President Tito of Yugoslavia often welcomed them to his tightly guarded getaway island in the Adriatic. French President Georges Pompidou personally signed their citizenship papers.
“I have done everything for love of Sophia,” Mr. Ponti said in 2002. “I have always believed in her.”
His first marriage, to Giuliana Fiastri, ended in divorce. Besides Loren, survivors include two children from his first marriage and two sons from his second marriage.
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