Most of the 30 or so people in the small screening room are laughing at the grisly excesses of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film that begins with a shrieking victim being sawed in half and then moves on to even gorier stuff. But Dino De Laurentiis does not join in his guests’ banter.
He is, seriously and quietly, studying the film. Filmmaker William Friedkin (The Exorcist) has recommended Massacre’s director, Tobe Hooper, as a man with potential. So as the screening ends and De Laurentiis walks out of his offices into the cool Beverly Hills night, he dismisses most of the film with a wave of his hand. But then he adds, “Billy was right, there is something there.” The way things are going, Hooper ought to be able to get six percent interest on that recommendation at any bank.
Since he moved to the United States in 1973, De Laurentiis, 56, has become Hollywood’s most successful producer, turning out a string of unlikely hits that began with The Valachi Papers and went on to Serpico, Death Wish, Man-dingo and Three Days of the Condor.
De Laurentiis recently signed, for films now in progress or soon to begin, an international all-star team of directors that includes Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Miloš Forman. They and a half-dozen less celebrated directors are working with stories on, among other subjects, Buffalo Bill, boxer Jake LaMotta, the disintegration of a marriage and—if De Laurentiis gets some legal problems solved—on a new, improved version of King Kong. The films will feature such marquee names as Liv Ullmann, Paul Newman and Margaux Hemingway, not to mention a mechanical gorilla.
How has he corralled such an array of talent, in the process earning a reputation as “the Godfather of the movie business”? Actor Charles Bronson, who will star in his fourth De Laurentiis film when he finishes the current St. Ives, says, “Because Dino invests so much in material, he’s bound to have some good stories, and stars and directors are attracted by that. But when we come to the selling of a picture, that’s where Dino really shines because he has contacts all over the world. He can pick up the telephone and book pictures even before they’re made—he has such a good reputation for success.”
It is not accompanied by any such reputation for modesty, which is perhaps understandable.
“When I leave Italy it is from zero, to start a new life,” he says, apologizing that he is still “allergic” to English. “Everybody there, they want me to come right back with no money. Now, I’m no star like Redford, who has to be recognized when he walks down the street. But I spend $6 million for properties alone in the last year, and I have only one boss: the audience.”
De Laurentiis says he left Italy because production costs had risen too high, government bureaucracy was interfering too much in the film business, and he was “tired of making movies for Italian taste.” That Italian taste also seemed to be less enchanted with him than it once had been.
After World War II, De Laurentiis rapidly made himself a power in the Italian film industry, turning out financial triumphs that occasionally won over the critics, as in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. In the mid ’50s, however, De Laurentiis split with partner Carlo Ponti and decided to go international and epic at the same time. This led to a mixed bag of florid productions from War and Peace to The Bible and finally to Waterloo, which did about as much for De Laurentiis’ prestige as it had for Napoleon’s.
At his peak in the early ’60s, De Laurentiis built a mammoth, $30 million ultramodern studio just south of Rome, with heavy government financial support. He called it “Dinocittà.” When he was forced out of the studio by business rivals and it was turned into an industrial park, he began to call it “the biggest mistake of my life.” Though he has more than recovered his esteem and fortune in the U.S., De Laurentiis still scowls when Dinocittà is mentioned. He has little else to scowl about.
Even his reputation as a tough, cynical and not hyper-scrupulous man to deal with has been gentled. True, nobody seems quite sure how De Laurentiis finances his projects, using both “private investors” and intricate arrangements with studios. De Laurentiis himself says only, “Good stories are like real estate; if you have them you can always get money.”
Even discounting the fact that for film people De Laurentiis is a potential employer to be cultivated, not cut up, his personality has become the target of relative raves.
Some are restrained. An industry veteran says, “People are surprised, but he’s a gentleman…. Well, anyway, nobody walks around calling him a son of a bitch like they do with a lot of producers.”
Others are enthusiastic, such as author Peter Maas, whose best-sellers The Valachi Papers and Serpico became film hits and whose most recent book, King of the Gypsies, will also become a De Laurentiis movie. “Before I met Dino, everybody I knew in the movie business said he was a crook and told me to stay away from him,” Maas says. “But I’ve found him to be completely honest, straightforward and loyal. He has guts—he produced The Valachi Papers after one studio executive had told my agent he wouldn’t buy the book because he didn’t want to worry that his car was going to blow up when he started it in the morning. And he has a tremendous, little boy enthusiasm for what he’s doing. Nothing turns him on like seeing a long line outside a theater showing one of his movies.”
De Laurentiis’ little boy enthusiasm began as just that, in Torre Annunziata, 12 miles from Naples. “I go to movies all the time and look up at the actors on the screen,” he recalls. “I say to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ” One of seven children, De Laurentiis was expected by his father to move into the family pasta business. Dino had other ideas and won a scholarship to a motion picture school in Rome. De Laurentiis says the high point of his career was his father’s pride in 1966 when the Italian government made son Dino a Cavaliere al Merito del Lavoro, an award never before or since accorded a motion picture figure.
Deciding early that he would fare better behind the camera—and that was where the power lay—De Laurentiis produced his first film at 17. It was hardly a classic, duplicating almost frame for frame a Swedish comedy. But it did give him a chance to exercise the self-salesmanship he has since developed to an art form. “I go to the bank for money to finance the film and the banker ask me for collateral. I say, ‘Look at my face. That is my guarantee.’ ” He got the money.
By the time Italy entered World War II in 1940, De Laurentiis had become an assistant director and producer at Lux studio in Turin. Though he was soon drafted into the army, he pulled some strings and landed a job making films.
When U.S. troops invaded Italy, the Italian army disintegrated and De Laurentiis found himself in Capri, which the Americans were using as an informal R&R site. “I had finished my money and I didn’t know what to do,” he remembers. “So I get a couple of friends and we take some bottles and fill them with water out of the faucets. Then we make up some labels that say, ‘Souvenir water from the Blue Grotto, Capri, Italy.’ The Gls seem glad to pay us $1 a bottle for them.”
De Laurentiis returned to films as soon as he could, forming a movie company with a friend and working for other producers. As producer on Bitter Rice, he met its star, actress Silvana Mangano. They married in 1949 and have four children. The two eldest daughters are married, while Francesca, a thoroughly Americanized 14-year-old, lives with her parents in their lush Beverly Hills mansion, as does son Federico, 21, a vice-president of his father’s company.
Movie people who suggested at the time De Laurentiis moved to the U.S. that he had lost his touch are now trying to explain the $100 million he has already grossed here. As in Italy, he has not tried to satisfy the critics—and came close to doing so only with Serpico. Agent Sam Cohn, many of whose clients have worked for De Laurentiis, explains: “Dino has this tremendous bifurcation. A lot of what he does is really low stuff. Other people in the business laugh at it, but it’s commercial and Dino can execute it with no sense of rue. On the other hand, he really needs the Bergmans and the Altmans to work for him for his ego’s sake.” However else De Laurentiis is judged, he justifiably can claim a sixth sense in anticipating what movies the public will buy.
Once he has committed himself to a film and assembled the principals, he tends to remove himself. “Dino,” says Ingmar Bergman, “is most understanding. He leaves all the artistic decisions to me.” (This is not always true if his director is less famous than a Bergman.) De Laurentiis is also appreciated for his willingness to spend money; he shelled out $70,000 to redo a sequence in Condor correcting Robert Redford’s makeup job.
Choosing properties is something De Laurentiis does alone, often with a minimum of procrastination. Last year he bought the rights to E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel Ragtime, getting the book for what turned out to be a bargain $250,000 because it was still in manuscript. He got the rights to Serpico for $500,000 after reading one chapter and talking on the phone with Maas. “If Dino likes something he says ‘yes,’ ” Maas says, “and that’s it. He shakes your hand and that’s really all you need. The contracts are formalities. If he says ‘no,’ forget it; there’s no way he’s going to change his mind.”
One project De Laurentiis has said an emphatic yes to is the new King Kong. The movie will cost upward of $12 million and it has already embroiled him in a lawsuit with Universal Studios, which claims the right to make its own King Kong even though De Laurentiis bought the copyright to the original 1933 version.
The film began creating a stir last fall when his son, Federico, who has handled most of the preproduction work, took a casting ad in trade papers. It said “tall black men” were needed to play the giant gorilla during some scenes. Accused of racism, De Laurentiis the Elder switched to a mechanized monster.
De Laurentiis drives others and is himself a relentless worker. He relaxes at home by cooking—his family says he is a master—and takes an occasional trip, like a recent vacation to isolated Bora Bora. It is more normal for him to be up at dawn reading scripts and potential properties. He has always had a small coterie of close advisers—in the scaled-down U.S. operation, they are story consultant Gino Bardi, attorney Blake Lowe Jr., executive vice-president Fred Sidewater, and publicist Ken Markman. “His staff is absolutely loyal to him,” agent Cohn says. “If for some reason he had to pick up and move his whole operation to Colombia tomorrow, I have no doubt they’d all go with him, no questions asked.” But the closer De Laurentiis can come to a one-man operation, the better he likes it.
“I make a movie, I want to control everything,” he says. “I no see why not.”