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Sergio Leone of ‘Spaghetti Western’ Fame Dies

Times Staff Writer

Director Sergio Leone, whose widely imitated films spawned the “spaghetti Western” genre and made Clint Eastwood an international celebrity, died of a heart attack Sunday in Rome.

The critically acclaimed film maker, whose credits include “A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” was 60.

Police said his family called for medical assistance shortly after 1:30 a.m., when Leone developed chest pains, but by the time help arrived, the heavy-set, white-bearded man was dead.

His wife, Carla, told Italian television the attack came as she and Leone were in bed watching TV.

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“He said, ‘I feel like I’m going to faint,’ and then he was dead,” she said. “He was a person whom everyone will miss so much, because, among other things, he was a real genius.”

In a career that spanned four decades, Leone is best known for the series of Westerns he made in Spain, Italy and eventually the United States in the 1960s. These films typically featured cold-hearted, gunslinging loners who dueled on sparse and sun-scorched landscapes to the accompaniment of a grandiose score, usually by composer Ennio Morricone.

Those films, which became known as “spaghetti Westerns,” included: “A Fistful of Dollars,” produced in 1964; “For a Few Dollars More,” produced in 1965, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” made in 1968.

Leone shot “A Fistful of Dollars” under the pseudonym Bob Robertson, believing it would be better received as an all-American product. But he used his real name in later films, and won a cult following in this country because of his careful attention to historical detail and infusion of realism.

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He also attracted solid casts--led by Eastwood, the young star of American television’s “Rawhide,” who was catapulted to worldwide fame by the leading roles.

Henry Fonda, the ultimate “good guy” icon, was successfully cast as a villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” in which he guns down a child in cold blood and rapes the heroine (Claudia Cardinale).

The 1969 film--which also starred Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and a host of famous character actors--with its impeccable photography and epic score (again by Morricone), is considered one of Leone’s masterpieces,

Times’ critic Sheila Benson wrote:

“This is the Western to the 100th power, stylized right up to and through the point of Kabuki.”

Leone’s extensive use of Monument Valley as a location for the film was considered a homage to John Ford, the legendary director who favored the same scenic northern Arizona mesa land in his Westerns.

That film was followed by yet another Western, “Duck, You Sucker” in 1972.

Directions in Italian

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Ironically, the Italian film maker who earned acclaim for his films on life in America, hardly spoke English and gave most of his directions through an interpreter.

But he insisted, “I know more about the West than most Americans. I feel more qualified to make a good Western than most American directors.”

Born in Rome in 1929, Leone, the son of director Vincenzo Leone, entered the industry at the age of 16 as an assistant to Italian director Vittorio De Sica on the classic 1946 film, “The Bicycle Thief.”

Over the next 20 years he worked on 58 productions, assisting such directors as Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler and Robert Wise on films such as “The Nun’s Story,” “Ben Hur” and “Helen of Troy.”

He first directed a film in 1961 with “The Colossus of Rhodes,” one of a series of popular mythological films made in Rome at the time. The film won the young director a wide following and a flood of offers to direct similar features.

However, Leone’s imagination was captured by the American Westerns he saw as a child, so he raised $250,000 and went to Spain to shoot “A Fistful of Dollars,” despite the prevailing opinion that the genre was in decline.

“The universal attraction of the Western is that it is a great fable, a myth like Achilles,” Leone told an interviewer in 1968. “For me personally, the attraction is the joy of making justice . . . without asking permission--bang, bang.”

A Dream Project

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In 1983, after 15 years of negotiations for funding, he finished a dream project about Jewish gangsters--"Once Upon a Time in America.”

The 3 1/2-half hour film, which starred Robert De Niro, James Woods and Tuesday Weld, won plaudits at the Cannes film festival and was a hit in France and Italy. But it was drastically cut for U.S. release and got lukewarm reviews.

Leone said he made the film about Jewish gangsters because there were already too many films about Italian gangsters, including “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by evil,” the director said in a 1982 interview with The Times, “because underneath you find that bad is sometimes better in a certain way than good. I want to show the romantic side of evil in an ambience that is not at all romantic. It’s very difficult to do, but I try not to romanticize too much. I am cynical enough not to romanticize too much.”

At the time of his death, Leone was planning to direct a major film about the siege of Leningrad by German troops in World War II. An aide said Leone worked all day Saturday and was to have flown to the United States today to sign a production deal.

In addition to his wife, the film maker, who made his home in both Italy and France, is survived by his children, Raffaela, Francesca and Andrea.


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