'Serpico,' 'Dune' among prolific producer's works

Dino De Laurentiis, who died Wednesday evening at his Beverly Hills home, leaves a legacy of showmanship and international financing innovations that will arguably be as long-lasting and influential as any of his films.

De Laurentiis, who was 91, was one of the first producers to make an art of the foreign pre-sale in financing films and to supply the studios with international co-productions. The first of De Laurentiis’ epic films was the 1956 “War and Peace,” directed by King Vidor and starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. A decade later, his international epics and his financing strategies flowered with titles like “The Bible” (1966), “Barbarella” (1968), “Flash Gordon” (1980), “Ragtime” (1981), “The Bounty” (1984), David Lynch’s $45 million “Dune” (1984) and perhaps most famously, his 1976 remake of “King Kong,” starring Jeff Bridges and a then-unknown Jessica Lange.

Though few of these were big box office performers, and critical reaction was mixed, he turned each of them into an “event” by wooing the press, throwing splashy events at international festivals such as Cannes, and relentlessly beating the PR drum.

He was so prolific his films were artistically all over the map, ranging from two Federico Fellini classics — “La Strada” (1954) and “Nights of Cabiria” (1957) — to “Death Wish” (1974) and “Serpico” (1973). Along the way, there were plenty of crime capers, gangster movies and exploitation pics with such titles as “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die” and “Goliath and the Vampires.”

At the age of 22, he produced his first film, “L’amore canta” (1941), financed independently in Turin. He founded Real Cine in Turin that year and became exec producer of Lux Film in 1942.

He was one of the first producers of neo-realist films after the war, including 1945’s “La miserie del Signor Travet,” “Il bandito,” “La fighlia del capitano” and “Il brigante Musolino.” His first international success came in 1949 with “Bitter Rice,” a mixture of neo-realism and eroticism.

In a 2009 interview with Variety, De Laurentiis said the producer’s role is “to create a dream.” Talking about Italy’s post-war filmmaking scene, he said: “After the war, there was no industry. We lost the war. We had our whole city destroyed. No money. No studio. No film. No camera. No equipment. We would shoot in the street. We had no actors. Nothing. But we wanted to do movies. And we did the best movies in the world.”

In the early ’50s, he joined forces with Carlo Ponti on such films as “Anna,” and “Il lupo della sila.” Their 1954 “Ulysses” starring Kirk Douglas did nothing to bolster his international status.

But the 1954 Fellini production “La strada,” starring the helmer’s wife, Giulietta Masina, was a major event, winning the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Award and the Oscar for foreign-language film. De Laurentiis earned a second Oscar for Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” the following year, though he pulled out of producing “La Dolce Vita” (1960), Fellini’s biggest international success.

De Laurentiis also made gritty urban action films, including “Serpico,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Death Wish,” which was a major success and spawned numerous sequels.

He was born Agostino De Laurentiis in Torre Annunziata, a small town near Naples. His family planned for him to take over its pasta manufacturing business, but the 17-year-old ran away to Rome and enrolled in the Cento Sperimentale di Cinematografia with plans to be an actor. His father cut off his allowance, but De Laurentiis persevered (he would eventually bring brothers Luigi and Alfredo into the business), working his way through school.

The budding thesp soon moved behind the scenes, working as an assistant director and unit production manager.

De Laurentiis was nothing if not visionary. He built Dinocitta, a $25 million state-of-the-art production facility outside Rome, in 1964, though it later went bankrupt.

In the mid-’90s he moved Stateside to make films and created De Laurentiis Entertainment. He bought the Embassy library and built production facilities in North Carolina. DEG went bankrupt by the end of the decade, plagued by costly failures. It was just one of many independent distribution entities that failed to compete effectively with the major studios.

But he never stopped working. De Laurentiis Communications was founded in 1990 and produced several not-so-successful films including 1993’s “Body of Evidence,” starring Madonna. He even reopened Dinocitta at one point.

Rarely using his own money and creating handsome terms for himself on his productions, De Laurentiis enjoyed a comfortable life. He married his “Bitter Rice” star Silvana Mangano in 1949. After they divorced 34 years later, he wed 33-year-old producer Martha Schumacher, who was president of his new production company, with daughter Rafaella De Laurentiis as head of production.

According to Martha De Laurentiis, “It’s not that he cares about the money least, but he cares about it last.”Dino De Laurentiis agreed. “To me the only real star of the movie is the writer. And I work with writers very closely, from outline to first draft and on to the seventh draft, whatever it takes. Then my job is to support the director to make the best movie we can. Some producers try to go past them, but my job is to support them.”

Of the hundreds of films he oversaw, some were terrible, many are forgotten, but the list of notable efforts also include Fellini’s “Casanova” (1976), Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” (1977), Robert Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” (1976) and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986).

His work continued through “Hannibal Rising,” a 2007 prequel to the Hannibal Lecter saga.

That film resulted from a long and bitter suit that he waged against Universal over sequel rights to “Silence of the Lambs,” which eventually allowed him to produce another film giving U first right of refusal. He continued working on several film projects until his death.

At the ceremony for the 2000 Oscars, he was awarded the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award.

“My grandfather was a true inspiration. He was my biggest champion in life and a constant source for wisdom and advice,” said granddaughter Giada De Laurentiis, a Food Network host and author.

A son, Federico, died in 1981 in a mid-air plane collision in Alaska while shooting a wildlife documentary. Aside from his wife and daughter Raffaella, he is survived by four other daughters, three sisters, five grandchildren including Giada, and two great-grandchildren.

(Leo Barraclough and Pat Saperstein contributed to this report.)

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