Scion of movie actress Francesca Bertini and pioneering Italian director Vincenzo Leone (aka Roberto Roberti), Sergio Leone merged his movie-made dreams of America with his own brand of epic myth-making to create a quartet of 1960s Westerns so exceptional that they earned their own generic moniker. Though initially derided as nihilistically violent spaghetti Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) galvanized the floundering genre, turning Leone into an international directorial star. Following his spectacular iron horse opera Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), however, Leone directed only two more movies before his death in 1989. Though he helmed a mere seven films, Leone's enormous influence was apparent from the late '60s onward, from Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and of course Clint Eastwood, who dedicated his Unforgiven (1992) "To Sergio and Don." Born and raised in Rome, Leone adored Hollywood movies as a child. Despite his father's insistence that he study law, Leone began a parallel education in filmmaking at age 18 through family connections. After working on several films, including Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1947), Leone quit school to pursue a movie career full time. Leone worked as an assistant director on the Hollywood spectacles Quo Vadis? (1951), Ben-Hur (1959), and Sodom and Gomorrah (1961). Leone got his first shot at directing when he took over The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) from ailing mentor Mario Bonnard, and earned his first "directed by" credit with The Colossus of Rhodes (1960). Leone found his next project after seeing Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo. Leone adapted Yojimbo as a low-budget Western to be shot in Spain. Low on the list of possible Americans to play Leone's Magnificent Stranger was a TV actor whom Leone cast more out of financial necessity than desire; and his composer, one-time schoolmate Ennio Morricone, made do with limited orchestra access. The result, re-titled A Fistful of Dollars (1964), turned out to be a wildly popular re-imagining of the hallowed Western myths, centering on a bloody conflict involving rival families and a sly gunslinger. Peppered with widescreen close-ups transforming faces into craggy "landscapes," and accompanied by a bizarre soundtrack of surf guitar, sound effects, and folk instruments, Fistful did away with the hoary sentiment, pastoral settings, and recent neurosis of Hollywood oaters. Though they would feud later over credit for their singularly accessorized gunfighter, Leone and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name became an indelible portrait of taciturn skill, humor, and pragmatic brutality. A hit in Italy, Fistful inspired scores of spaghetti Westerns but few had the personal obsessions with prior movie myth-making that gave Leone's genre pictures artistic heft. Though the U.S. release of Fistful was delayed by rights problems over Yojimbo, its European run was so successful that Leone was pushed to quickly make a sequel. Puckishly titled For a Few Dollars More (1965), Leone and co-writer Luciano Vincenzoni expanded the ironic view of the West in a story involving two bounty hunters and a psychotic stoner bandit. For a Few Dollars More paired Eastwood's bounty-hunting Man with Lee Van Cleef, whose personal motivation for his mercenary violence is revealed aurally through Morricone's textured score and visually in flashbacks that lead up to the climactic "corrida" showdown with Gian Maria Volonté's bandit. For a Few Dollars More broke box-office records in Italy, paving the way for the even more expansive sequel The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). A Civil War epic starring Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in the respective title roles, The Good's quest for gold included numerous dark jokes, venal ruses, and an elaborate bridge explosion on the way to the famously dramatic, three-way graveyard showdown. Yet another hit, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly sealed Leone's status as the premiere Italian Western director. Released in the U.S. in 1967 and 1968, the Dollars trilogy repeated its European success, turning Eastwood into a major star and Leone into a critical pariah for his alleged desecration of the Western. Nevertheless, the trilogy revived Hollywood's interest in the ailing genre and opened the door for a new cycle of critical Westerns, including Peckinpah's violent masterwork The Wild Bunch (1969). Given carte blanche to make another Western by Paramount, Leone embarked on a film meant to be his farewell to the genre. Working from a treatment by fellow cinéastes Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and a script co-written with Sergio Donati entitled the ultra-legendary Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone created an epic canvas encompassing archetypal characters and the railroad to augment the personal conflict between Charles Bronson's nameless "hero" and Henry Fonda's killer. Replete with references to Hollywood Westerns, including John Ford's signature Monument Valley, West transformed the path of Progress into a trail of death, beginning with the mini-epic credit sequence that Leone envisioned as the demise of his Good, Bad and Ugly stars. When Eastwood declined, Leone enlisted Woody Strode and Jack Elam. Shot to the majestic rhythms of Morricone's score, punctuated by elusive flashbacks and extreme close-ups, and drawn out to operatic length, Once Upon a Time in the West performed decently in Europe -- and became one of France's biggest all-time hits -- but was deemed fatally slow by American viewers. Though Paramount pulled the film and chopped 25 minutes, West flopped. While he had decided to stop directing Westerns, Leone was intrigued enough by the spaghettis' increasing politicization in the late '60s to co-write a screenplay with Vincenzoni and Donati about a Mexican peasant who meets an ex-IRA bomber during the Mexican Revolution. After failing to find a director -- Peter Bogdanovich made a rough early exit -- Leone agreed to do it. Released under such fan-friendly titles as Once Upon a Time, the Revolution and A Fistful of Dynamite, Duck, You Sucker! (1972) benefited from Rod Steiger and James Coburn's presence, and Leone's facility with action, but it too failed. Leone didn't direct another film for over a decade, turning down such projects as The Godfather (1972). After spending the 1970s producing films, Leone finally managed to mount his long-gestating gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). A sprawling meditation on Hollywood gangster mythology, America was intended to do for the gangster film what West did for the Western. Starring Robert De Niro and James Woods as two 1920s Jewish hoods, Leone told the story of their rise and fall through an atmospheric tapestry of flashbacks, scored by Morricone, that becomes as much an homage to the possibilities of cinema as an opium-addled criminal's potential fantasy. Or that's what America was in the full-length, three-hour-and-49-minute version that debuted to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival. The nervous American producers, however, hacked over an hour and 20 minutes out of the film before releasing it stateside. Reduced to an incomprehensible mess, Once Upon a Time in America flopped in America. Despite this artistic blow and a heart disease diagnosis, Leone began to plan an ambitious film about the WWII siege of Leningrad, even securing the Soviets' cooperation. This project, and a Western intended as a vehicle for Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere, however, were ended by Leone's death in February 1989.
Biography by Lucia Bozzola
- As a child, was a classmate of Ennio Morricone, who later composed scores for the director's gritty westerns, accompanying the violent graphics with operatic music.
- His work in film production and as an assistant director eventually led to his first solo outing, The Colossus of Rhodes (1960).
- Became an international sensation (along with leading man Clint Eastwood) with the first film of his Man With No Name trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo.
- Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) fulfilled his longtime desire to work with Henry Fonda.
- The 228-minute runtime of his final film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was slashed by the studio to 144 minutes for its release.