Arguably the most popular Italian screen comedian since the immortal Toto, Roberto Benigni mastered the exacting art of improvisational humor early. Inspired by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Peter Sellers, Benigni first gained fame in his native country with his own must-see TV series, sustaining his vast following with several hilarious movie appearances. One of his best-known monologues, "Cioni Mario," was expanded into the feature film I Love You Berlinger/Berlinguer Ti Voglio Bene (1977), after which Benigni went on to star in a number of popular films in Italy.
His 1991 Italian box office success, Johnny Stecchino, brought him considerable international attention. American filmgoers, however, may have become aware of his brand of comedy earlier with 1988's The Little Devil, which Benigni wrote, directed, and co-starred in with Walter Matthau. He had also been visible -- to art house audiences, at least -- as a convict in Down by Law (1986) and a Roman taxi driver confessing a bit too much information to a priest in Night on Earth (1988), both directed by Jim Jarmusch, before appearing in Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close in 1993.
Having demonstrated his comedic talents to an worldwide audience, Benigni seemed an inspired casting choice for the pratfalling offspring of Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards' 1992 Son of the Pink Panther. Unfortunately, the role created by Peter Sellers may not have been ideal for Benigni and the comedy received little praise. The comedian more than proved himself five years later, however, co-writing, directing, and starring in Life Is Beautiful. The movie -- which had the potentially ungainly premise of a comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp -- proved to be a huge international success, both critically and commercially. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival -- where Benigni, leaping on-stage to accept the award, got down on his knees before presenter Martin Scorsese and kissed his hand -- and ultimately won a number of other awards, including Best Actor and Best Screenplay Oscars for Benigni. Accepting one of his awards, Benigni proved to be one of the more memorable aspects of the 1998 ceremony. Upon hearing of his win, he jumped up on his seat and then took to the stage, where he proceeded to proclaim -- in broken English and at great length -- his great joy and gratitude.
Aside from a supporting role in the 1999 fantasy adventure Astrix and Obelix vs. Cesar Benigni remained relatively low-key in the years following his success with Life is Beautiful. Of course coming off of such success and with rumors abounding, expectations were certainly high for whatever project the eccentric actor would develop next - a factor that may have done more damage than good. Though when he originally concieved an adaptation of the timeless tale of Pinocchio Benigni envisioned the film as starring himself with famed director Federico Fellini at the helm, the director's death left Benigni the director of what would be one of the most expensive films in Italian film history. Immediately lambasted by critics upon release in 2002, the visually extravagant film proved a notable failure at the box office - with the dubbed stateside version of the film taking exceptional heat. By this point no one doubted Benigni's talent, but his misguided execution left many to wonder just how it was that the production spiraled so far out of control. Fortunately fans could take some comfort in Benigni's masterful performance on the television special L'Ultimo del paradiso later that same year. The following year Benigni turned in a memorable performance in old friend Jim Jarmusch's episodic drama Coffee and Cigarettes.