Thursday, May 19, 2011

I'm Still Not Quite Over the Hill

I'm trying to recall the first time I ever became aware of today's featured actor and I'm having trouble doing so. I only know that, whenever it was, I was instantly hypnotized by those crystalline baby blue eyes (a trait I admittedly seem to fall for the most in man, followed by the chest.) I think my earliest exposure to Terence Hill, as he is known to American audiences, was in one of those 1960s German westerns based on the books of Karl May, in which he had dark hair and played a character of dubious repute. His pretty face and impish grin had me looking at others films of his before long.
Mario Girotti was born on March 29th, 1939 in Venice, Italy. Though his father was an Italian chemist, his mother was German and when he was a mere toddler, the family went to live in Germany for the dog days of WWII (a surprising decision since the nearby town Dresden was under heavy fire at the time.) By 1946, they were back in Italy where he was primarily raised. Just as his later career would be split between hard action and goofy comedy, he had trouble deciding between life as a pilot or an actor. In 1953, when Girotti was twelve, his mother took him to audition for director Dino Risi. Ironically, the director's assistant has also spotted him at a local swimming meet and suggested him for use in an upcoming film. By the time the assistant had suggested him to Risi, he'd already won the part from his audition!

This kicked off a spate of acting work in Italian films, the money going toward paying for his education and, later, subsidizing his beloved hobby of motorcycle riding and collecting. To expand his horizons as an actor, he took English lessons, learned to ride a horse (that would certainly come in handy!) and studied at the Rome branch of The Actor's Studio. He had grown into a lean, just-under-six-foot-tall Adonis with delicate features and, of course, those startling eyes. He swiftly became a much-utilized young male actor in many films. Soon, he found himself in featured roles, sometimes (as in the case of 1959's Hannibal, which starred Victor Mature and Rita Gam) opposite American stars who were working in the Italian film industry for the considerable salaries that were being offered to them. Also in the cast of Hannibal was an actor named Bud Spencer, someone who would eventually become heavily connected with Girotti. Though the actors had no shared scenes in this film, they had known each other since their swimming days.
As a college student, Mario Girotti studied classical literature for three years before ultimately deciding to pursue acting as a full-time career. He had already appeared in more than two dozen movies when he made this decision! 1962 brought Joseph and His Brethren, a Biblical epic that starred American Geoffrey Horne along with British stars Robert Morley and Belinda Lee. Girotti played Benjamin, Joseph's (in this version anyway!) most beautiful brother. It is amusing to see how, especially given his brief screen time, he is continuously pawed on by both his onscreen father Felix Aylmer and his brother Horne. I guess he was just that touchable!

Then there was Seven Seas to Calais, this time starring Rod Taylor and Keith Michell, all about the oceanic exploits of Sir Francis Drake. Far from being typecast as a goody-goody with those pretty looks, he was an antagonist to Michell here and a rival for the hand of his lady.

Perhaps his most prestigious film of this time (and, perhaps, of any) was Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, a lavish, lengthy saga about a wealthy family affected by socio-political upheaval in mid-19th century Sicily. The big names were Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, but Girotti had a small role as well and was impressed by the director's work during it. The original length of the piece was 205 minutes, though it was later hacked into shorter versions.

1964 was a pivotal year in that he was approached to come back to Germany (where he spoke the language fluently) and appear in a series of westerns. Author Karl May had written quite a few books about the American west (though he had never been there, personally, a trip to the northeast being as close as he ever came) and many of them were adapted into movies that were hugely popular. (He's shown here on the left with Leticia Roman.) American actors Lex Barker and (later) Stewart Granger found success acting in them. Pierre Brice, a French actor, made a career out of playing the Indian hero Winnetou in all of them (despite having significant blue eyes of his own!)

While U.S. Audiences had to contend with poorly dubbed renditions of these pictures, the beauty of the scenery along with the vibrance of the adventurous plotlines (and the beauty of several of the actresses including Elke Sommer, Karin Dor and Daliah Lavi) helped make them a pleasure to view. They're delightfully old-fashioned in plot, but usually energetically handled. Some of the ones Girotti acted in were Last of the Renegades, Frontier Hellcat (the one in which I think I first noticed him), Rampage at Apache Wells and Flaming Frontier.

It was only after around forty movie appearances that Mario Girotti adopted the name Terence Hill in 1967. He returned to Italy and was signed to work on some spaghetti westerns, taking a slice of the pie that Franco Nero (an actor that he resembled somewhat) had been successful with. In order to be marketed worldwide, including America, it was determined that his name be changed. He was given a list of about twenty names to select from, with one day in which to decide, and settled on Terence Hill. This same year, he married an American girl named Lori, who had served as the dialogue coach on one of his movies, God Forgives... I Don't! (a.k.a.- Blood River), in which his character's name was Cat Stevens! (The character of Cat Stevens would appear again in Ace High and Boot Hill.)

Hill (who eventually morphed into a blonde) was teamed with the husky, decidedly less pretty Bud Spencer in that same film, God Forgives... (a bit hit), and it led to a lifelong collaboration and friendship with sixteen more films and some television projects to come. The visually unusual combo of Hill and Spencer was a considerable hit with audiences and it became commonplace to see them costarring in various movies whether they be westerns or modern-day actionfests. These movies brought out a heretofore rarely (if ever) seen level of wackiness in his persona as the duo proceeded to gather a following for their comic schtick. The fact that the pair did practically all of their own - sometimes quite dangerous - stuntwork only added to the level of admiration they garnered from fans.

One of their collaborations (and an unusual setting for them) was 1971's Blackie the Pirate, which had them as adversarial swashbucklers wrangling over the prisoner Silvia Monti, who is the wife of viceroy Edmund Purdom (an actor who had been all but run out of Hollywood due to his attitude following a string of box office disappointments and who then built a career for himself in Italy.) He and Spencer made a conscious decision, however, to generally film only one movie together per year so as not to wear out their welcome (or their creativity.)

He moved to the U.S. with his wife and baby boys (one of whom was adopted), setting up a home in Massachusetts from which he would travel the globe to make movies whenever the opportunity arose, which was frequently. This bondage shot is from the pirate flick, btw, and not a snapshot from his den at home.

In 1972 was Man of the East, all about a fancy pants newcomer to the west who stands out dramatically against the rough and dirty cowboys and tramps he encounters until finally assimilating with them. He wore a memorably snug and sexy exercise get-up in part of this one and was also shown taking a bath in an outdoor bathtub he'd had shipped in. (The little Yorkie the man on the left is holding was involved in a running gag throughout, with each person handing him off acting as if he'd been wet on!)

In '73, he made what would come to be his very favorite movie, My Name is Nobody, with Henry Fonda. He played a burgeoning gunfighter eager to take on his longtime idol Fonda. It had a tongue in cheek approach versus the serious spaghetti westerns that had at times become unintentionally comic in their delivery and translation. Produced by the great Sergio Leone and with music by Ennio Morricone, it was Fonda's last western. He made a sequel to the movie featuring the character Django that had previously been played by Franco Nero. Then, throughout the late '60s and early '70s, Hill was the star of films that carried the key word Trinity. Trinity was Hill's own characterization and the first film, My Name is Trinity, was a smash hit to the extent that no other movie matched its attendance records for more than fifteen years after its release. The follow-up was called Trinity is STILL My Name. Because the word “Trinity” was known as a key word from a hot property, it was occasionally slapped onto U.S. Releases of films that had nothing to do with the initial character just to draw people in! His face was dirtied and every effort was made to downplay his matinee idol looks in order to give the gritty western adventures some degree of authenticity, but there was no hiding those amazing peepers. For such a fit, good-looking man, he really didn't do much barechested work, nor any nudity.
Hill made only very infrequent U.S. movies, such as Mr. Billion in 1977, a film which required his character to come to California from Rome in order to claim a sizeable inheritance. Costar Jackie Gleason, playing the will's executor, tries to prevent him from getting to the U.S. to claim the money in the specified time and sends Valerie Perrine out to coerce him into signing the right to it away.

Then there was March or Die, about The French Foreign Legion in the 1920s. The international cast included Gene Hackman, Catherine Deneuve, Max Von Sydow and Ian Holm. It was a rare, very serious sort of part and film for Hill, though he brought his cutomary whimsy to it. He played an athletic gypsy thief who aids the legionnaires in a fight that has them outnumbered 20 to 1! These films, however, were not able to produce a solid American career for Hill, though he resided here.

Another U.S./Spain/Italy co-production, this one filmed in Florida, was 1980's Super Fuzz. As a cop affected with powers following exposure to a detonated nuclear missile, he worked alongside Ernest Borgnine, his pal Spencer and blast from the bast Joanne Dru (playing a character called Rosy Labouche, a potential drag queen name for some hopeful out there!)

For whatever reason, Hill never rose to more than a cult favorite in the U.S. though he continued to be popular in Italy and elsewhere around the world. (And I do apologize, but I've lost track of who the lady is in this fairly recent photo of him.) A slowdown in the mid-'80s was followed by a busier period in the mid-'90s. Then, back in Italy in 2000, he embarked on a successful television career with the hit show Don Matteo. In this, he played a priest who also works as a detective. He shot over 150 episodes and it ran until 2009.

Now seventy-two years old (and resembling our own Tab Hunter slightly), he continues to act. Still married to his wife of over forty years, they suffered the sad loss of their son Ross in a 1990 road accident. Their other son Jess has worked in front of and behind the camera on several occasions, mostly on his father's projects.

Terence Hill retains a strong following among fans of spaghetti westerns and the comedies he worked on with his friend of over forty years. Though fairly unsung above the surface, he's admired in The Underworld for that gorgeous face and his ever-pleasant personality, one we wish more of the world was able to enjoy.

3 comments:

Michael O'Sullivan said...

I love that last photo of him - I have never been interested in spaghetti westerns, maybe I should watch a few.... great piece as usual on a fascinating career. I have The Leopard and Joseph and his Brethern though!

TJB said...

What a beauty... and one of the few men I can think of who could make a 3 piece royal blue suit work, solely based on his physical gorgeousness!

Colive said...

He was a great success in Brasil, not only on the cinema but also on tv. In the 80s there were a lot of Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer festivals through all the week.