Regular visitors to The Underworld know of my weakness for blue-eyed, brown-haired gents. We rarely know for certain what causes these sorts of preferences, but I have a feeling that mine may have begun with today’s Italian idol, Franco Nero.
Picture it: Christmas Eve, 1975. My mom and I are driving home from some friends’ house where we’ve just enjoyed dinner and games and are hoping to get inside in time to watch Camelot on television. I’ve never seen it, but my mother has rhapsodized half the drive home about Lancelot and has warbled some of the title song (which, somehow, I sort of know.) We park the car, step up onto the porch and enter the front door only to find that we’ve been burglarized! Jewelry, watches and some other doodads are stolen, but most importantly, the color TV is gone! This was quite possibly the most deflating, haunting Christmas ever.
My room had an old black & white set in it and after the police had come and gone, we nestled in there to watch what we could of the movie, our hearts now heavy and our personal safety tinged with a sense of violation. But there he was… riding in on his steed with armor shining and, even in black and white, those gorgeous eyes beaming… Franco Nero as Lancelot!
Neither of us knew then that Nero barely spoke English at all or that it wasn’t really his voice singing with such power. I just knew that he was close to the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and I wanted him to forget about Guenevere and rescue me instead!
Nero was born Francesco Sparanero in Parma, Italy in 1941, though he grew up in Bedonia and Milan. The son of a strict police sergeant, he nonetheless began appearing in local theatricals at the tender age of six. He didn’t pursue this line as he grew up, preferring to study Economics at Milan University and expressing an interest in photography, which eventually provided him with some income as he specialized in capturing famous paintings on film. Still, there was that face, a beauteous configuration that caught the eye of the makers of photo-novels, Italian books that told stories mostly through pictures, featuring models enacting the tales with printed subtitles and text to go with.
This work led him to some small roles in Italian films. One, Wild, Wild Planet, is one of the loopiest, most eye-popping science-fiction flicks imaginable! Fifth-billed Nero is one of the good guys, trying to stop an evil scientist from kidnapping prominent citizens in order to use them in eugenics experiments. This pops up on TCM occasionally and I cannot recommend it enough for sheer lunacy. The 1965 Italian art direction, costumes and hair combine to make for a very fun hour and a half. Franco, of course, is beautiful throughout in his navy blue uniform, though the star is Tony Russel. Best is the final scene, which finds the leading men in a few really bizarre swimsuits (though, sadly, Franco’s is a turtleneck!)
Dependable and appealing as he was, Nero swiftly became a very busy working actor in his homeland’s film industry. The following year, he appeared in the gritty, dusty, violent western Django (pronounced “Jango”) as the title character, a determined cowboy dragging a massive coffin with him everywhere he goes. The movie was a raging success all over Europe and remains a cult favorite (Quentin Tarantino, in particular, was inspired by it for one of his scenes in Resovoir Dogs.)
Not long after this, Nero was working as a set photographer (still balancing two professions) when John Huston was in town scouting locations and preparing his “epic” The Bible: In the Beginning… He took one look at Nero’s face and exclaimed that that was who he wanted to play Abel, the favored, “good” son of Adam, who is slain by his jealous brother Cain. This was not a large role, but the movie (until it opened, that is!) was one given a fair amount of attention.
This led to Joshua Logan selecting him to play Lancelot in the 1967 filmization of the popular 1960-1963 Broadway musical Camelot. Richard Burton had turned down the role of King Arthur, despite having taken home a Tony Award for his stage performance, and Julie Andrews, the original Guenevere, was so popular a film star by now that she had no room in her schedule, so Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, neither one known for their singing abilities, were cast as the leads. Harris, of course, had just played Nero's brother in The Bible!
Lancelot’s songs are arguably among the prettiest and most demanding in the show (having been handled by expert baritone Robert Goulet in the stage rendition), so a professional vocalist’s (Gene Merlino) tracks were used, which Nero then lip-synched to. Seen today, Nero alternates between woodenness and hamminess, depending on the moment, but there is no denying that he looks the part anyway.
The film was lambasted for its lack of musicality (with heavy smokers Harris and Redgrave trying to make up in acting for what they lacked in singing ability), for overlength and for its failure to escape its stage origins. Audiences and critics have long been divided on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the film. Folks have also often criticized the fact that Harris has on more makeup than Redgrave! One thing that is indisputable is that Nero really did fall for Redgrave during the filming. The pair wound up a romantic couple in real life and she, in a move controversial at that time, gave birth to his son out of wedlock. (She already had daughters Natasha and Joely and was, in fact, still legally married to their father Tony Richardson during the filming of Camelot.)
While Franco caught Vanessa’s eye right away, he, upon first meeting, found her all wrong for Guenevere (which, by the way, is spelled this way in the film despite being spelled virtually everywhere else as Guinevere! I just wanted you to know I’m not totally illiterate, just partially.) Spotting her in jeans and with her hair a mess, he prepared himself for disaster, but once she invited him to her house for a dinner party and answered the door (whereby he didn’t even recognize her all made up and dressed!), he was sold.
Nero’s career in films continued from this point, but generally not in American productions. Redgrave had only a small break in order to give birth to their son Carlo Nero. In 1969, the couple reunited on film in A Quiet Place in the Country, a moody, patently 1960s psychodrama about a famous, but troubled, painter who heads to a secluded villa to escape some of his demons and soon finds the place haunted by a young woman killed there during WWII. Redgrave portrays his agent and the two filmed some rather kinky love scenes with a sadomasochistic bent to them. (she would miscarry, in 1971, what would have been Nero’s and her second child together.)
In 1969, Nero was part of the large international cast of The Battle of Neretva, an epic war film (and the most expensive film to that time ever to be made in Eastern Europe.) Also on board were Yul Brynner, Orson Welles, Hardy Kruger, Curd Jurgens, Russian actor/director Sergei Bondarchuk and Sylva Koscina. The following year, he was paired with famous French actress Catherine Deneuve along with Fernando Rey in Tristana, a love triangle drama. Helmed by legendary Spanish director Luis Bunuel, it enjoys a remarkable reputation and is considered a fine example of his work even now.
Next was an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel. The Virgin and the Gypsy had Joanna Shimkus (later Mrs. Sidney Poitier) as the virgin and Nero as the Gypsy, with Honor Blackman and Kay Walsh in supporting roles. Looking at Nero’s extensive resume, he was being directed by several notable names (in between more common fare) and working opposite some of the biggest names in the cinema (again, in between more routine films.) He played with Anthony Quinn in Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears (pic below is from that film) and Liv Ullman in Pope Joan, a near-forgotten film that also starred Maximilian Schell, Lesley-Anne Down and Miss Olivia de Havilland.
Always a busy actor overseas, Nero started to pop up in U.S. television productions. The first was 1975’s The Legend of Valentino in which he was a very unlikely Rudolph Valentino, despite both of them being Italian. He was surrounded by a trio of actresses whose very names summon up images of the silent screen: Suzanne Pleshette, Lesley Ann Warren and Yvette Mimieux! He played a terrorist in 21 Hours at Munich, an account of the 1972 Olympics massacre. Then there was the four-hour miniseries The Pirate, based on a Harold Robbins novel that costarred an almost unrecognizable Anne Archer, Olivia Hussey, Christopher Lee and James Franciscus! He portrayed a sheik at odds with his revolutionary-minded daughter Hussey.
Interspersed with this were other movies, sometimes small Italian action films such as The Naked Prey, other times more mainstream projects like the British-made follow up to Guns of Navarone, Force 10 From Navarone. Newly christened star Harrison Ford was the star of that one, along with Robert Shaw. For the bulk of the 70s and 80s, Nero sported a thick “porn stache,” which gave him a distinctive look against those who were only wearing facial hair temporarily, role by role.
One of Nero’s most bizarre film parts came when he appeared in The Visitor. The title role was taken by his old pal John Huston and the jaw-dropping cast included Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah, Lance Henrickson and that master thespian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! Nero played Jesus Christ, appearing in a vision. Increasingly working in all-star projects, The Salamander would find him with Anthony Quinn, Martin Balsam, Christopher Lee, Eli Wallach, Claudia Cardinale and feature a fight scene with him wearing solely a jock strap!
Nero had been advised by several of the greats he knew (notably Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) that he had to make a choice when it came to acting. He could either play star roles and maintain a career that way (with a limited shelf life) or play anything and everything he could, in essence becoming a character actor, which would grant him a much longer and far more rewarding career. He chose the latter, swiftly learning to deemphasize those unbelievable looks, often wearing a mustache or a hat, and taking on villainous parts or characters in offbeat projects. It isn’t likely that the British legends had Enter the Ninja (with Susan George) in mind when they mentored him, but that was another of his genre-crossing choices. His voice was horrendously dubbed by a slick-sounding American for the entire film, too.
In what has to be one of his most outlandish (for him anyway) roles, he went to work for controversial director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982’s Querelle, a heavily-stylized, garishly tinted tale about a hunky sailor (Midnight Express’s Brad Davis) who is at once experimenting with homosexuality while simultaneously punishing those who enter into it with him. Nero plays his superior officer who lusts after him tremendously. Nero (a heterosexual who has fathered two sons, both out of wedlock) had no qualms about diving into the role, even fondling himself through his white trousers in one scene.
Regardless of its merits, and opinions vary dramatically on that score, the movie is worth a glance in order to check out its hilariously phallic sets. There’s also the presence of Jeanne Moreau as a local chanteuse, though the focus is primarily on Davis (and, since he is quite obviously going commando under his gob gear, that isn’t exactly a punishment for the eyes!) In an ironic twist, when Redgrave divorced husband Tony Richardson in 1967, she had named Jeanne Moreau as co-respondent!
1984 brought one of the all-time cheesefest miniseries, The Last Days of Pompeii. Franco, with his hair closely clipped, portrayed the chief villain of the piece, a fanatical religious zealot who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. You tell me where else you’re going to find Ned Beatty, Ernest Borgnine, Nicholas Clay, Lesley-Anne Down, Olivia Hussey, Siobhan McKenna, Laurence Olivier and LINDA PURL in the same movie! The Italian version of this multinational affair ran 310 minutes. That’s a long time to wait for the ash to shoot and the lava to flow and there was plenty of lunacy taking place before, during and after. Trust me! In any case, it’s a chance to see two Lancelots because Clay was a memorable one as well in Excaliber.
Franco rarely worried about looking unattractive or even ridiculous. He explored virtually every avenue of acting available from serious drama to action to comedy. Many of his Italian and other European films have him dirty, disheveled, crazed-looking and outfitted with strange hair and/or clothes. Take 1988’s Top Line, shown here, a cheap sci-fi knockoff in which he plays a down on his luck writer who winds up in the middle of a tribe of natives and is wearing next to nothing.
He played the primary baddie in Die Hard 2, his steely blue eyes being put to use in a more threatening way. In truth, though Franco Nero has not maintained a level of star status in the U.S., he has, as he had always intended, remained busy all along. He has appeared in over 120 movies and worked in close to 50 TV projects. He also segued into writing, producing and directing, especially in more recent years. He has, since he was a very young man, worked tirelessly to raise, and personally donate, funds, along with his time, to Italian orphans. His charity work is well known in his homeland.
After being separated for many years, though frequently winding up in projects together, Nero reconnected with Redgrave and the two came to the conclusion that they belonged together. They held a private marriage ceremony in 2006 that, while not legally binding (of their own choosing), has solidified their almost lifelong connection to each other. In 2010, Redgrave took on a role in the film Letters to Juliet, as an older woman whose long lost lover is being sought after by young Amanda Seyfried in a bid to reunite them. The lover is portrayed by none other than Franco Nero, making a memorable entrance on horseback.
Now about to turn 70, Nero is still a handsome, salt ‘n pepper (grand)daddy, full of charm and as devoted as ever to not only his career and his charities, but to Redgrave. They have, after many miles on a bumpy road, found a means of companionship that works for both of them. (It’s a relationship she has needed in the worst way during the recent losses of her sister, brother and daughter, though he’s also been there for the happy times, such as when she was presented with the BAFTA Academy Fellowship this year.) For many American audiences, when Redgrave finds Nero in Letters to Juliet, they are also finding him after quite a long time without seeing him onscreen. Hopefully, it is something that will happen again and again as his charm is too great to do without in these crass times.