Dino de Laurentiis, Producer of `Serpico' and `War and Peace,' Dies at 91

Dino De Laurentiis, the son of Italian pasta makers who became a prolific movie producer of blockbuster hits such as “Serpico,” expensive duds such as “Dune” and sweeping epics including “War and Peace,” has died. He was 91.

He died in Los Angeles, his longtime adopted home, Agence France-Presse reported, citing his family. He lived in Beverly Hills with his third wife, Martha. The news agency said his nephew, producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, confirmed his uncle’s death to reporters in Rome.

First in his native Italy, then in the U.S., De Laurentiis combined marketing flair, an eye for talent and a fearlessness of failure as he produced more than 600 films, some prodigious in scale and ambition, often featuring superstar names in action thrillers.

He worked with, among many others, directors Federico Fellini and Milos Forman and actors Al Pacino, Audrey Hepburn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who credited De Laurentiis’s “Conan” movies with making him an international superstar.

The tumult of his personal life rivaled the action in his movie scripts. He had four children with Italian model-turned- actress Silvana Mangano, who died in 1989 shortly after their divorce became final, then two more daughters with third wife Martha, the youngest one born when De Laurentiis was 71.

His only son, Federico, died in a 1981 plane crash while making a documentary about salmon fishing. One of De Laurentiis’s grandchildren, Giada, is a celebrity chef on U.S. television.

Early Acclaim

De Laurentiis earned much of his critical acclaim early in his career. Two films he produced during a seven-year collaboration with fellow Italian Carlo Ponti -- “La Strada,” which Fellini directed, and “Nights of Cabiria” -- won back- to-back Academy Awards for best foreign-language film in 1956 and 1957.

Decades passed before the academy again honored De Laurentiis, presenting him with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award in 2001 for his body of work.

“I’ve been very lucky in my long life,” De Laurentiis said upon receiving the award. “On three continents, in diverse cultures, through happy moments, not-so-happy moments, and moments as marvelous as this one, I’ve had the privilege of working with the cinema’s greatest masters.”

Small in stature (various accounts gave his height as either 5 feet 4 inches or 5 feet 6 inches), De Laurentiis made a giant impact on how the movie industry stages, promotes and finances big-budget, big-name spectacles. Rather than work for Hollywood studios, he sold his productions directly to distributors in the U.S. and around the world.

‘Event’ Films

That made De Laurentiis one of the first “global film producers, savvy about their international audience and raising money all over the world in order to make ‘event’ films,” Brooklyn College professor Frederick Wasser wrote in the 2002 book “Movies and American Society.”

In the 1980s De Laurentiis briefly turned his attention to improving the American culinary experience, opening food stores in Manhattan and Los Angeles. Their lavish displays of breads, pastas and cold cuts drew crowds of sightseers, but the stores closed within a few years.

Impressed by the serenity of coastal North Carolina during filming of Stephen King’s “Firestarter” in 1983, De Laurentiis built what later became the EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington. He seemed on his way to assembling an entertainment conglomerate when he acquired Embassy Pictures from Coca-Cola Co., formed the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group and, in 1986, took the company public.

Big-Budget Flops

A series of big-budget disappointments, including David Lynch’s sci-fi thriller “Dune” (1984), led to a financial crisis, and the Beverly Hills, California-based film company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1988. De Laurentiis stepped aside as chairman and his daughter, Raffaella, resigned as president of production.

He never stopped producing movies, however. He ran Dino De Laurentiis Co. with his wife, the former Martha Schumacher, a one-time administrative assistant in his New York offices. Among its productions was the hit “Hannibal” (2001).

“Making movies is all about instinct,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Agostino De Laurentiis, the third of seven children, was born on Aug. 8, 1919, in Torre Annunziata, near Naples. His parents ran a pasta factory.

Pasta Salesman

Deciding that the life of a traveling pasta salesman wasn’t for him, De Laurentiis won his father’s permission to study acting at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He shortened his name to Dino in his early 20s when he entered the movie business.

“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 recalled in interviews for the 2004 book “Dino: The Life and Times of Dino De Laurentiis.”

He had just broken into Italy’s film business -- working as a stagehand, extra, director’s assistant, and finally director of production -- when he was called to military service in 1943 during the final weeks of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship. He said he retreated with other deserters, avoiding German troops, until Allied troops secured Italy. Back in Rome in 1944, he got busy reviving his film career, and Italy’s film industry.

Met Future Wife

He founded Dino De Laurentiis Studios in 1947 and had quick success with “Bitter Rice” (1949), which was nominated in the U.S. for an Academy Award for best picture. It was on that set that he met Mangano, a teenage model breaking into acting. They would marry in 1949.

In the 1950s he began work on the epics that would help define his career. With Ponti he produced “Ulysses” (1954), with Mangano and Kirk Douglas, and “War and Peace” (1956), with Hepburn and Henry Fonda, which was nominated for Academy Awards for cinematography, costume design and best director (King Vidor).

In 1962, De Laurentiis bought land in Rome and started work, with government subsidies, on what would become Dinocitta --“Dino City” -- a sprawling production studio that opened in 1964 and was patterned after Cinecitta, the studio founded by Mussolini. Among the movies he made there was “Barbarella” (1968), the science-fiction film that featured Jane Fonda in various states of erotic dress, and undress.

Dino’s City

Dino’s city didn’t stand for long. By the early 1970s De Laurentiis was chafing at the Italian government’s demands that films have Italian directors and predominantly Italian casts. Meantime, the Italian film industry was in decline, and Dinocitta was losing money each year.

De Laurentiis decamped with his family to New York and found immediate success with a trio of hit law-and-order movies: “Serpico” (1973) starring Pacino; “Death Wish” (1974) starring Charles Bronson; and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. He would become a U.S. citizen in 1986.

De Laurentiis heaped praise on the U.S. before and after making it his home. “In Italy, contrary to the way it is in the United States, a man who works hard and tries to do something becomes a target for animosity,” he said in a 1965 interview with the New Yorker magazine. “In the United States, such a man is appreciated.”

‘Only Mistake’

In the 1970s he told New York magazine that building Dinocitta in Rome “was the only mistake I’ve made in my life. If I had built it in New York, it would have been fantastic.” The magazine reported that shuttering Dinocitta had left De Laurentiis several million dollars in debt, a gap he easily closed with earnings in the first 18 months of producing movies in the U.S.

Inspired by the success of the 1975 hit “Jaws,” De Laurentiis embarked on a $25 million remake of the 1933 movie “King Kong,” giving the starring role to a model and first- time actress, Jessica Lange.

The 1976 movie was a box office success and won an Academy Award for visual effects, but left critics mostly unimpressed. “A series of big, foolish but entertaining spectacle scenes,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.

Schwarzenegger’s Breakthrough

Conan the Barbarian” (1982), marked the acting breakthrough ofArnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder who years later became governor of California. “It was your Conan movies that launched my international career,” Schwarzenegger wrote to De Laurentiis on his 80th birthday, according to the 2004 biography of the filmmaker.

In 2001, at 82, De Laurentiis showed he could still make hits when he combined with director Ridley Scott and actor Anthony Hopkins on “Hannibal,” the smash sequel to the 1991 hit “The Silence of the Lambs.” He followed that in 2007 with “Hannibal Rising.”

De Laurentiis’s brief first marriage, in Italy during the 1940s, was annulled. Raffaella, one of his four children with Mangano was executive producer of the 2004 movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net; Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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