×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns Made a Fistful of Dollars and Clint Eastwood a Star

Sergio Leone was born Jan. 3, 1929; he would have been 90 this week. Though he directed only seven films, their impact has been wide and long-lasting, including making Clint Eastwood a star. 

On Oct. 11, 1967, Variety carried a guest column by Lee Van Cleef shortly before the U.S. bow of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The actor countered criticism that Leone’s films are too violent: “What could have more violent sequences than the Bible?” he wrote. Van Cleef added that the films were authentic and heavily researched, saying that on the set the filmmaker “carried a small library of well-illustrated American books devoted to American history of those times.”

In that same issue, Leone said he didn’t invent Westerns all’Italiana. There were two dozen before the 1964 “Fistful of Dollars.” But the film was such a hit, he said, it inspired more than 200 spaghetti Westerns in the following two years, half of them with “dollars” in the title.

In those two years, the Italian film industry was revived, with the two films earning $1.6 billion in Italy.

Popular on Variety

Leone — the son of director Roberto Roberti (aka Vincenzo Leone) — started as a script clerk at age 17, and earned dozens of screen credits as an assistant director. He made his directing debut when Mario Bonnard exited the 1959 Steve Reeves vehicle “The Last Days of Pompeii”; movie lore has debated whether Bonnard left for another commitment or whether it was due to illness.

Leone directed another spear-and-sandal movie, “The Colossus of Rhodes,” then made his turning point, the Italian-Spanish-German Clint Eastwood-starring “Fistful,” which owed a great debt to Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.”

“Fistful” was made for $100,000 and earned $4.6 million in Italy alone, with box office growing for each new Leone western, with their trademark use of tight closeups and memorable music by Ennio Morricone.

As a boy, Leone loved American westerns but felt they presented an overly romanticized view of the Golden West. As Variety’s Hank Werba wrote in 1968, “To Leone, the westerner was a predatory creature at every level. There were no clear ethical or moral reference lines. The plainsman acted and reacted violently, generally motivated by such basics as greed, revenge or self-survival. It represented a complete switch from the law-virtue syndrome of the past.”

However, Leone promised to Werba that his upcoming “Once Upon a Time in the West” would have a different slant: “Ruthlessness will be counterbalanced by such pioneer qualities as instinctive honesty and empathy.” It was planned as his last Western, on a $5 million budget.

“Once Upon a Time” features a screenplay by Sergio Donati and Leone, from a story by three of the Italian industry’s biggest names: Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento.

Henry Fonda originally turned down the film after he read a badly translated script. Then he phoned Eli Wallach, who said, “Take it!” Wallach, who’d starred in “Ugly,” added that working with Leone was an experience no actor should miss.

Fonda screened “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and told Leone: “I am your boy. Where do you want me? Make a mark and I will stand there.” After months of shooting, Fonda said, “He’s one of the great directors in the business, and I’ve seen quite a few in my 33 years.”

Leone’s final film was “Once Upon a Time in America” in 1984, five years before his death at age 60.

More Film

  • BRUNI - Curious and cute, this

    Korea Box Office: ‘Frozen 2’ Advances to $86 Million

    For the fourth consecutive weekend, “Frozen 2” remained as the box office champion in South Korea. The Walt Disney release earned $6.55 million from 896,000 admissions between Friday and Sunday and accounted for 42% of the total weekend box office. It has now earned a total of $85.9 million from 12.1 million admissions after four [...]

  • Cineworld

    U.K.'s Cineworld Poised to Buy Canada's Cineplex in $2.1 Billion Deal

    U.K.-based Cineworld is to acquire Cineplex, Canada’s leading cinema chain, in a deal that values the Toronto-listed company at $2.1 billion (C$2.8 billion) and puts Cineworld in position to become North America’s biggest exhibitor. Cineworld said Monday that it had secured unanimous approval from its board of directors for the acquisition, and that its leading [...]

  • Trailer to Fedor Bondarchuk Sci-Fi Actioner

    Fedor Bondarchuk's Sci-Fi Actioner 'Invasion' Debuts Imax Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the Imax trailer, dubbed into English, to Fedor Bondarchuk’s sci-fi actioner “Invasion,” the sequel to his 2017 blockbuster “Attraction.” In the first film Moscow becomes the battleground for all-out war against an army of alien invaders. In the sequel, an alien spaceship crash lands in Moscow, and an [...]

  • Sheep Without a Shepherd

    China Box Office: ‘Shepherd’ and ‘Skyfire’ Lead Local Film Dominance

    Chinese-made films “Sheep Without A Shepherd,” “Skyfire” and “Gone With the Light” dominated weekend takings at the mainland Chinese box office. Hollywood’s holdovers were consigned to the lesser rankings. “Shepherd” is a remake of 2013 Indian thriller “Drishyam” and tells the story of a man trying to cover up for his daughter’s killing of a [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    COLA Announces California On-Location Awards Winners

    “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Dolemite is My Name,” and HBO’s “Ballers” are among the winners of this year’s COLA awards. The COLAs recognize location managers, public employees and other professionals who help facilitate on-location production across the Golden State. This year’s awards program was held at the Universal Hilton. Finalists and winners are [...]

  • French movie director Jean Luc Godard

    How Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard Immortalized Each Other (Guest Column)

    With the passing of Anna Karina, a curtain has fallen on the French New Wave, that fabled cinematic movement that brought fame to the man who made her name, Jean-Luc Godard. Yes, Godard is still with us, as is “Breathless” star Jean-Paul Belmondo (practically the last of the living New Wave legends), but his moviemaking [...]

  • Richard Jewell

    Box Office: Clint Eastwood Suffers Worst Opening in Four Decades With 'Richard Jewell'

    Clint Eastwood might end up with a lump of box office coal after “Richard Jewell” sputtered in its domestic debut. Despite critical acclaim, Warner Bros.’ drama about the security guard falsely accused by the media for playing a part in the 1996 Olympics bombing ignited with a dismal $5 million from 2,502 theaters. It’s a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content