Death of a Showman: Dino De Laurentiis (1919-2010)

A dreamer and a salesman, producer De Laurentiis gave the world masterpieces and flops, kitsch and Kong

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Producer Dino De Laurentiis, circa 1980

For his first five years, Agostino De Laurentiis didn't speak, but his mother Giuseppina showed no concern. "Look at it this way," she said of the lively child. "When he begins to talk, nobody will be able to make him stop." By the time he was 15, as a traveling representative for Pastaficio Moderno, his father Aurelio's food business, the kid from Naples had turned words to his advantage. "Agostino's greatest asset — which he'd use to straighten out a million different messes, in decades to come — was his overwhelming skill as a communicator," wrote his biographer Tullio Kezich. "He knew how to charm, how to dazzle ... The gratified Aurelio recognized that his son was a born salesman."

What is a salesman but a fellow with a dollar and a dream? Speaking in urgent Italian or broken English, peddling pasta for his papa or producing hundreds of films in a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Dino de Laurentiis knew that salesmanship demanded showmanship, and he had both in his blood. His dreams could cost a few lire, like the Italian comedies he made with Toto (10 films) and Alberto Sordi (22 films) or the many millions of dollars he poured into his 1976 remake of King Kong. His production of Federico Fellini's La Strada won the Oscar for best foreign-language film; Year of the Dragon and Body of Evidence were short-listed for Razzies. Some of his movies (Death Wish, Conan the Barbarian, Hannibal) earned a bundle; on others (The Bible, Hurricane, Dune) he nearly lost his silk shirt. But Dino never lost his drive or his nerve. His death Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 91 in Beverly Hills, Calif., closed the books on a 5-ft., 4-in. giant of the movie business.

He could have been an Italian cousin of the East European Jews who built the American movie empire. Short of stature, chomping on a pricey cigar, seated behind an enormous desk in a chair that elevated him above his visitors, he pursued his impulses with energy and chutzpah. And like MGM's Irving Thalberg and Dino's partner and rival Carlo Ponti, he had a movie-star wife. Silvana Mangano had been an instant sensation as the dirty-dancing peasant in the 1949 Bitter Rice. The star and her producer wed that year; they had four children and were still married when she died 40 years later. They made 22 films together, and if Mangano never reached the superstar heights of Ponti's bride, Sophia Loren, she matured into an actress of erotic elegance. (Shortly after Mangano's death, he married American producer Martha Schumacher, who survives him. They had two daughters.)

This golden huckster was susceptible to the spiels of other talented dreamers; he was a sucker for auteurs, from Roberto Rossellini to Sergei Bondarchuk, David Cronenberg to Sam Raimi. When Ingmar Bergman exiled himself from Sweden after a tax wrangle, he got De Laurentiis' backing for the Berlin-made The Serpent's Egg. After David Lynch had a hit with The Elephant Man, Dino financed Lynch's goofball epic Dune, and when no one in Hollywood would have lunch with the post–Heaven's Gate Michael Cimino, Dino let him make Year of the Dragon. More than an enabler, he was a creative businessman. In 1953, seeing the potential for worldwide appeal in Fellini's early films, he imported American actors Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart to star with Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada. De Laurentiis and Fellini teamed again on Nights of Cabiria, another international success — though Dino filched the Cabiria negative to excise a long monologue he thought superfluous. The two men never again worked together.

Art-house hits are fine, but a big producer must make big movies. Emboldened by having crossed movie cultures with La Strada, Dino hired Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda to star in the 1956 War and Peace, directed by Hollywood stalwart King Vidor and shot at Dinocitta, the studio he had built in Rome. The film tanked, but the paisano didn't regret his overreaching. He'd do it again and again, leaving fate to sort out the hits and the flops. Gambling on movies wasn't so much an addiction as a religion, as natural as breathing hard on a run up a steep hill — kind of like Sisyphus. "Dino is never happier than in a King Kong situation," one associate said, "where the stakes are enormous, where he can win or lose everything."

In the 1960s, toward the end of Hollywood's fascination with biblical epics, De Laurentiis planned a series of Old Testament drama, beginning with Genesis, to be directed by the great French minimalist Robert Bresson. For the Noah's Ark sequence, Dino hired a huge menagerie of animals, but when Bresson told him he'd be shooting only the tracks left by the animals, Dino fired him and shut down the multifilm project. (He settled for one movie, The Bible, directed by John Huston.) He then made a Napoleon film starring Rod Steiger and ignored the implications of the title — Waterloo. After Jaws did smash box office, Dino figured anything big, bad and wet was surefire. But the whale adventure Orca went belly-up, and The Hurricane was less a disaster movie than a disaster. Often he needed the less grandiose product — the Jane Fonda Barbarella, the slave-lust melodrama Mandingo, Charles Bronson's Death Wish series — to pay off the doomed epics.

A Bergman or Fellini could stay close to home, but an ambitious producer just had to go Hollywood. De Laurentiis' 1954 comedy An American in Rome starred Sordi as a young Italian who loves all things American: he tries to speak like Gary Cooper and walk like John Wayne, and he threatens suicide unless he can secure a visa to the States. De Laurentiis didn't have to go that far. When the Italian government reduced its film subsidies in the late '60s, he left for America. First stop: New York City, where he sponsored four movies — The Valachi Papers, Serpico, Death Wish and Three Days of the Condor — that painted Manhattan as the town where every nightmare can come true.

That description might also fit the New York–shot King Kong, except that Dino, in a TIME cover story on the production, called it "the greatest love story ever made." He was enthralled with Jessica Lange, his young leading lady (whom he had signed after nixing another promising ingenue, Meryl Streep, as "ugly"), and with the emotional bond between her character and the big ape. "No one cry when Jaws die," Dino told TIME. "But when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap." As it happened, De Laurentiis' Kong, like Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, would not obliterate the memory of the original. The film's only lasting poignancy is its connection with the site of the ape's demise: the World Trade Center.

After Kong, De Laurentiis moved to Hollywood, where his record was just as impressively erratic. What other producer would find both E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip suitable for lavish film versions? In the '80s, De Laurentiis forged sustaining relationships with two other authors: Stephen King, from whose fiction Dino birthed five features, and Thomas Harris, whose first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon, he filmed in 1986 as Manhunter. Over the next two decades he produced four more Lecter movies (another company made The Silence of the Lambs). To spur the notoriously slow writer to finish the Hannibal manuscript, Dino sent his own pasta chef to Miami. He knew that, one way or another, artists need to be fed.

Like father, like son: the De Laurentiises are ardent foodies. (So is Dino's granddaughter Giada, who has her own show on the Food Network.) In 1982, believing that America didn't have pasta nearly as delizioso as the stuff from papa Aurelio's spaghetti factory, he opened the DDL Foodshow in Manhattan. "He has filled his showpiece with a 32-ft. counter for cold salads, 20 ft. of charcuterie and 139 chefs, bakers and pastrymakers," wrote then TIME staffer Graydon Carter. "De Laurentiis is no stranger to the delights of kitchen duty. 'When I cook,' says he, 'my brain stops completely.' "

Actually, the Foodshow shut down, but Dino's brain never did, not until Wednesday. He dreamed for a living, constantly and productively, and left a film legacy nearly as succulent as his own legend.