Gian Maria Volonté was born on April 9, 1933 in Milan, Lombardy, Italy. He is perhaps most famous outside of Italy for his roles as the main villain in Sergio Leone's “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) (credited in the U.S.A. as "Johnny Wels") and “For a Few Dollars More” (1965). In Italy, he was more notable for his roles in high-profile social dramas depicting the political and social stirrings of Italian and European society in the 1960s and 1970s.
Volonté graduated from the university in Rome in 1957. He had a brief career as a television and theatre (Shakespeare, Goldoni) actor, before concentrating on his film career.
He made his debut in 1960 in “Sotto dieci bandiere”, directed by Duilio Coletti. Just four years later, Volonté played "Ramón Rojo" in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and "El Indio" in For a Few Dollars More (1965), both for monetary reasons as he did not consider either role seriously. Both films were directed by the then-unknown Sergio Leone, and Volonté's roles in them would bring him his greatest recognition from American audiences. He also played the memorable roles of the Bandito-turned-guerrilla, “El Chuncho”, in A Bullet for the General (1966) and as Brad Fletcher in “Face to Face” (1967).
His performances as memorable but neurotic characters, or as a gifted leader of brigands or revolutionaries, together with the unexpected, worldwide success of the films, gave him international fame. Volonté had already played comedies, including “A cavallo della tigre” (1961), by Luigi Comencini, and confirmed his versatility in “L'armata Brancaleone” (1966). However, he found his main dimension in dramatic roles for “Banditi a Milano” (1968), by Carlo Lizzani, “Sbatti il mostro in prima pagina” (1972) by Marco Bellocchio, “La Classe operaia va in paradise” (1972) by his friend Elio Petri and “Il sospetto” (1975) by Francisco Maselli.
In 1968 he won a Silver Ribbon as best actor for “A ciascuno il suo”, also directed by Elio Petri. Volonté received the same award for two other performances: Petri's “Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto” (1971, winner of an Academy Award as best foreign film), considered by many to be his finest; and in “Opera al nero” (1989). In 1983 he won the award for Best Actor at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival for “La Mort” de Mario Ricci. Four years later, at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival, he won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for “Il caso Moro”. 1988 Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, remarkable play as a Renaissance physician in "L'OEuvre au noir" film by André Delvaux from Marguerite Yourcenar famous novel. In 1990 he was declared best European actor for “Porte aperte”. In 1991, at the Venice Film Festival, he won a Golden Lion for his career as a whole.
He was a strong political activist known for his left-leaning views. Companion of Italian actress Carla Gravina for almost 10 years, they met when they played Romeo and Juliet in the theatre in 1960. The two had a daughter Giovanna, born in the early 1960s. The actress Angelica Ippolito was his companion from 1977 until his death in 1994.
Volonte died from a heart attack in 1994 at Florina, Greece during the filming of “Ulysses' Gaze”, directed by Theo Angelopoulos. His role in the film was recast with Erland Josephson.
Today we remember Gian Maria Volonte, one of the Euro-westerns greatest actors, on what would have been his 80th birthday.