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Dino De Laurentiis in 2007 (Getty Images)
Dino De Laurentiis in 2007 (Getty Images)

Movies

Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis dies Add to ...

Dino De Laurentiis, an Academy Award-winning film impresario and producer of Serpico and Barbarella, who helped revolutionize the way movies are bankrolled and sold, has died. He was 91.

The producer's daughter said her father was surrounded by family when he died Wednesday night at his home in Beverly Hills. The statement from Raffaella De Laurentiis did not give a cause of death.

"My grandfather was a true inspiration. He was my biggest champion in life and a constant source for wisdom and advice. I will miss him dearly," granddaughter Giada De Laurentiis, a star chef and host on Food Network, said Thursday.

De Laurentiis was a legend of Italian New Wave filmmaking. His works also included Bitter Rice, La Strada and Death Wish.

He was tiny but tough, a veritable Napoleon on the set and utterly tireless. "Such a little lion," was how his second wife, producer Martha De Laurentiis, put it when he turned 80.

Like any larger-than-life movie figure, De Laurentiis went through boom times and busts. But he always bounced back and his passion for movies never dimmed.

His career spanned hundreds of films, including several Oscar winners, and he worked with some of the biggest stars and best directors in the business. His credits include box office and/or critical successes such as U-571, War and Peace, Ragtime, Three Days of the Condor and Blue Velvet.

A pivotal figure in postwar Italian New Wave cinema, De Laurentiis moved to the United States in the 1970s, becoming a citizen in 1986. But this son of a Neapolitan pasta maker never lost his thick Italian accent and tried to spend a month in Capri and Rome each year.

The Oscar-winning Serpico, in 1973 with Al Pacino, was De Laurentiis' Hollywood debut. But by then, he already had two Italian-made Oscar-winners: Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria to his credit.

De Laurentiis was one of the first producers to understand the box-office potential of foreign audiences, and helped invent international co-productions, raising money by pre-selling distribution rights outside North America.

Throughout his career, he alternated lavish, big-budget productions with less commercial films by directors such as Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, and he often packaged the blockbusters with art films to secure distribution for the smaller films.

De Laurentiis was capable of bold, brilliant strokes and audacious risks. In his 80s, he could still pull off a major coup by snapping up the movie rights to Hannibal, novelist Thomas Harris' sequel to hit The Silence of the Lambs.

One of six children, he was born in Torre Annunziata on the Bay of Naples on Aug. 8, 1919. When he was 16, he headed for Rome to study acting. When he was 18, he produced his first film. A few years later, he started his own production company in Turin.

The serious success began after World War II, starting with Bitter Rice, in 1948, which launched the career of his first wife, Silvana Mangano.

In 1950, De Laurentiis went into business with another rising director, Carlo Ponti. They soon dominated the Italian movie business, monopolizing top stars such as Mangano, Sophia Loren (who later married Ponti) and Marcello Mastroianni. Their first international production was the epic War and Peace (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer) in 1955.

He also teamed up with acclaimed New Wave directors. One of his most successful partnerships was with the legendary Federico Fellini. Together they made La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Oscar winners for best foreign film in 1957 and 1958.

De Laurentiis built a huge new studio on the outskirts of Rome, called it Dinocitta (Dino city), and began producing spectacles with Hollywood stars: Barrabas (Anthony Quinn), The Bible (George C. Scott, Ava Gardner), Anzio (Robert Mitchum), Waterloo (Rod Steiger). He also made more offbeat fare, such as Roger Vadim's sex romp, Barbarella (Jane Fonda).

The studio folded in 1972, the victim of rising costs, and De Laurentiis left for United States, where he produced his formula of alternating grandiose spectacle with more sophisticated fare.

He got off to a strong start in the United States with Serpico, then followed it up with another success, Three Days of the Condor, a spy thriller starring Robert Redford.

But he was also battered by flops, including the infamous Dune, in 1984 and a truly awful King Kong sequel.

Personal tragedy also took its toll. In 1981, his son Federico was killed in a plane crash. "My father still to this day can't speak of him. ... He told me that every morning he wakes up and thinks of him," De Laurentiis' daughter Veronica said nearly 20 years after Federico's death.

The strain of the loss helped end his marriage to Mangano. They were divorced in 1988, the same year De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went into bankruptcy, finished off by the flop of King Kong Lives.

Yet De Laurentiis, close to 70 years old, was undaunted and started over.

Within two years, he had a new wife, 29-year-old Martha Schumacher, formed a new company and started producing moneymakers again.

"My philosophy is very simple," De Laurentiis once said. "To feel young, you must work as long as you can."

Survivors include three daughters with Mangano - Rafaela, Francesca and Veronica - and two with Schumacher: Carolina and Dina. Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.

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