Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran). During his schooldays, Leone was a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone for a time. After watching his father work on film sets, Leone began his own career in the film industry at the age of 18 after dropping out of law studies at the university.
Working in Italian cinematography, he began as an assistant to Vittorio de Sica during the movie “Bicycle Thieves” (1948). Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the 'sword and sandal' (a.k.a. 'peplum') epics, popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably “Quo Vadis” (1951) and “Ben-Hur” (1959), financially backed by the American studios.
When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic “The Last Days of Pompeii”, starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when the time came to make his solo directorial debut with “The Colossus of Rhodes” (1961), Leone was well-equipped to produce low-budget films which looked like larger budget Hollywood movies.
In the early 1960s, historical epics fell out of favor with audiences, but Leone had shifted his attention to a sub-genre which came to be known as the "Spaghetti Western", owing its origin to the American Western. His film “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) was based upon Akira Kurosawa's Edo-era samurai adventure “Yojimbo” (1961). Leone's film elicited a legal challenge from the Japanese director, though Kurosawa's film was in turn probably based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest. A Fistful of Dollars is also notable for establishing Clint Eastwood as an International star.
Leone's next two films “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) completed what has come to be known as the Dollars trilogy, with each film being more financially successful and more technically accomplished than its predecessor. The films featured innovative music scores by Ennio Morricone, who worked closely with Leone in devising the themes. Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone's music ongoing. In addition, Clint Eastwood stayed with the film series, joined later by Eli Wallach, Lee van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.
Based on the success of The Man with No Name trilogy, Leone was invited to the United States in 1967 to direct his epic “Once Upon a Time in the West” for Paramount Pictures. The film was shot mostly in Almería, Spain and Cinecittà in Rome. It was also briefly shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The film starred Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. The film's script was written by Leone and his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, it was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its low box-office results in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe, grossing nearly three times its $5 million budget among French audiences, and highly praised amongst North American film students. It has come to be regarded by many as Leone's best film.
After Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone directed Duck, You Sucker! (1971). Sergio was intending merely to produce the film, but due to the demands of its stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn he directed the film instead.
Leone continued to produce, and on occasion, step in to reshoot scenes in other films. One of these films was “My Name is Nobody” (1973) by Tonino Valerii and “A Genius” by Damiano Damiani.
Leone turned down the opportunity to direct “The Godfather”, in favor of working on another gangster story he had conceived earlier “Once Upon a Time in America” for which he devoted ten years to the project. Lasting over just two hours, the recut version shown in North America received much criticism and flopped. The original version, released in the rest of the world, achieved somewhat better box office returns and a mixed critical response. When the original version of the film was released on home video in the U.S.A., it finally gained major critical acclaim, with some critics hailing the film as a masterpiece.
While finishing work on “Once Upon a Time in America” in 1982, Leone was impressed with Harrison Salisbury's non-fiction book The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, and he planned on adapting the book as a war epic. Time was running out for Sergio his bad eating habits and the stress caused by “Once Upon a Time in America” had taken its toll and Leone died of a heart attack on April 30, 1989. He was only 60 years old.
We remember today Sergio Leone, known as the “Farther of the Spaghetti Western” who would have celebrated his 85th birthday today.