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Sergio Leone (; January 3, 1929 – April 30, 1989) was an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter most associated with the "Spaghetti Western" genre.
Leone's film making style includes juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots. His best remembered movies are the 'Man with No Name' trilogy (''A Fistful of Dollars'', ''For a Few Dollars More'' and ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly''), ''Once Upon a Time in the West'' and ''Once Upon a Time in America''.
Born in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran). During his schooldays, Leone was a classmate of his later 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 university.
Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the 'sword and sandal' (a.k.a. 'peplum') historical epics, popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably ''Quo Vadis'' (1951) and ''Ben-Hur'' (1959) 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'' (''Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei''), starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when the time came to make his solo directorial debut with ''The Colossus of Rhodes'' (''Il Colosso di Rodi'', 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 audiences, but Leone had shifted his attention to a sub-genre which came to be known as the "Spaghetti Western" owing its origin to the American Western. His film ''A Fistful of Dollars'' (''Per un Pugno di Dollari'', 1964) was based upon Akira Kurosawa's Edo-era samurai adventure ''Yojimbo'' (1961), 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 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 storyline, plot, 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 behaviour; they rarely shaved, looked dirty, sweated profusely, and there was a strong suggestion of criminal behaviour. The characters were also morally ambiguous by appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation demanded. 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 as a child, which carried into his adulthood and his films.
Leone's next two films — ''For a Few Dollars More'' (1965) and ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'' (1966) — 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'' (''C'Era una Volta il West'') for Paramount Pictures. The film was shot mostly in Almería, Spain and Cinecittà 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!'' (''Giù la Testa'', 1971). Leone was originally just going to 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 reshoot scenes in other films. One of these films was ''My Name is Nobody'' (1973) by Tonino Valerii (though true participation of Leone in shooting is disputed,) 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'' (1975, another western comedy starring Terence Hill); ''The Cat'' (''Il Gatto''; 1977, starring Alberto Sordi and ''The Toy'' (''Il Giocattolo''; 1979, starring Nino Manfredi). Leone also produced three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone, which were ''Fun Is Beautiful'' (''Un Sacco Bello'', 1980), ''Bianco, Rosso e Verdone'' (''White, Red and Verdone'' - Verdone means "strong green", a pun referring to the three colours of the Italian flag, the star and to director Verdone, 1981) and ''Troppo Forte'' (''Great!'', 1986). 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'' (1984), 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.
Later years and death
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''.
''A Place Only Mary Knows''
The script was written by Leone, Luca Morsella, and Fabio Toncelli. Set at the height of the American Civil War, the treatment for Leone's idea of an "Americanized" western concerned a Union soldier and a Southern con man/drifter searching for buried treasure while avoiding the battles between the Confederate States of America and the North. It was to star Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere as the two main leads.
Although the written draft never got into pre-production, Leone's son Andrea had it published in 2004.
''Leningrad: The 900 Days''
While finishing work on ''Once Upon a Time in America'' in 1982, Leone was impressed with Harrison Salisbury's non-fiction book ''The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad'', and he planned on adapting the book as a war epic. Although no formal script had been completed or leaked, Leone came up with the opening scene and basic plot. According to the documentary ''Once Upon a Time, Sergio Leone'', the film opened ''in medias res'' as the camera goes from focusing on a Russian hiding from the Nazis' artillery fire to panning hundreds of feet away to show the German Panzer divisions approaching the walls of the city. The plot was to focus on an American photographer on assignment (whom Leone wanted to be played by Robert De Niro) becoming trapped in Russia as the German Wehrmacht begin to bombard the city. Throughout the course of the film, he becomes romantically involved with a Russian woman, whom he later impregnates, as they attempt to survive the prolonged siege and the secret police, because relationships with foreigners are forbidden. According to Leone, "In the end, the cameraman dies on the day of the liberation of the city, when he is currently filming the surrender of the Germans. And the girl is aware of his death by chance seeing a movie news: the camera sees it explode under a shell .... "
By 1989, Leone had been able to acquire $100 million in financing from independent backers, and the film was to be a joint production with a Soviet film company. He had convinced Ennio Morricone to compose the film score, and Tonino Delli Colli was tapped to be the cinematographer. Shooting was scheduled to begin sometime in 1990. The project was canceled when Leone died two days before he was to officially sign on for the film.
In early 2003, Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore sparked interest in announcing he would direct a film called ''Leningrad'', and he expressed interest in casting Nicole Kidman in the role of the female love interest. The film was in production by 2008, but whether or not it is related to the Leone project has yet to be revealed.
According to Frayling's biography of Leone, ''Something to Do with Death'', he envisioned a contemporary adaptation of Cervantes' seventeenth century novel ''Don Quixote'' with Clint Eastwood in the title role and Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza. He had discussed doing the project throughout the 1960s-70s, and he started seriously considering it towards the end of his life.
Other planned films
Leone was also an avid fan of Margaret Mitchell's novel ''Gone with the Wind'' and the 1939 film adaptation. His relatives and close friends stated that he always talked about filming a remake of the film that was closer to the original novel, but it never advanced beyond discussions to any serious form of production.
Leone was a fan of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novel ''Journey to the End of the Night'' and was considering a film adaptation in the late '60s; he incorporated elements of the story into ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'' and ''Duck, You Sucker!'' but his idea of adapting the novel itself never got past the planning stages.
Leone also started writing a screenplay based on Lee Falk's ''The Phantom'', and scouted locations for the project. Despite this, he never got to make a movie based on the comic book hero. He declared he would have liked to follow his Phantom project with a movie based on another Falk-created character, ''Mandrake the Magician''.