One of the most popular and versatile stars in Italy for over 40 years, handsome, flamboyant Vittorio Gassman has found tremendous success on stage and screen as an actor. Internationally, Gassman is perhaps best known as the comic star of such films as I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) (1956) and Lo Zio Indegno (The Sleazy Uncle) (1989). Before making his film debut in the 1946 Preludio d'Amore, Gassman had established himself as a major stage star, having appeared in some 40 productions; he specialized in classical plays.
He was born in Genoa, the son of an Italian mother and an Austrian father, and before entering the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome, studied law. It was his mother who encouraged Gassman to become an actor. In film, he started out in dramatic or romantic roles, but did not become a star until his fourth film, Giuseppe De Santis' Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) (1949), in which he played the fugitive lover of buxom peasant Silvana Mangano. The film was an international hit as was Gassman. He had further success playing the villainous Vittorio to Mangano's Anna in Anna (1951). In 1952, Gassman headed for Hollywood to call on Shelly Winters. The two married shortly thereafter and Gassman was contracted to MGM. Appearing in such average fare as Cry of the Hunted (1953), Mambo, and Rhapsody (1954) did little to popularize him in the U.S. Gassman eventually tired of trying to make it in the States and after divorcing Winters, returned to the Italian stage. In 1956, he played Anatole in King Vidor's War and Peace and reestablished himself as a star in the Rififi parody I Soliti Ignoti. That year, Gassman also established the Teatro Popolare Italiano, his own theater troupe. The actor cut his directorial teeth with filmmaker Francesco Rosi with a biography of a famous British actor for Kean (1957). The film was not a success but did serve to add fuel to Gassman's reputation for occasionally hamming up his roles. By the 1960s, the heretofore serious actor began focusing on comedic, often satirical films. His winning of the 1975 Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Award for his portrayal of a sightless captain in Porfumo di Donna was a highlight in Gassman's career (the film inspired an American version, The Scent of a Woman (1992) starring Al Pacino). Gassman's film career continued in high gear through the mid-'80s with notable films including C'Eravama Tanto Amati (Those Were the Years) (1975) and Caro Papa (Dear Father) (1979), some of which, like The Nude Bomb (1980), were made in Hollywood. After 1985, Gassman began appearing in fewer films, though he did have a memorable turn as a crime lord in the tense Hollywood drama Sleepers in 1996.