March 18, 1996 12:00 PM

SMILING SHEEPISHLY, ACTOR TONY Franciosa explains how his right foot wound up in an orthopedic shoe. Ski injury? Noooo. In January, Franciosa, 67, was walking through a park near his rustic, five-bedroom home in Los Angeles when he came upon a ball lying in the grass—”a lovely red, round vision,” as Franciosa recalls it. “I’m thinking to myself: What would Pelé do with this?” Why, score the winning goal, of course. Unfortunately the lovely, red ball was made of hard, thick plastic, and Franciosa’s big toe…isn’t.

But never mind his bandaged foot. There’s a spring to Franciosa’s step as he talks up City Hall, his first major movie in 20 years. The film, starring Al Pacino as a New York City mayor, features Franciosa in a small but chilling role as a Mafia don. Director Harold Becker cast Franciosa after catching one of his old movies, 1972’s Across 110th Street, on cable. “Tony has a smile that cuts through you,” he says. These days, Franciosa is grinning over critics’ good notices and hoping to revive his career.

He has come a long way. Forty years ago he was hailed for his turn as a drug addict’s brother in Broadway’s A Hatful of Rain. That role led to a hatful of choice parts, including 1957’s A Face in the Crowd and ’58’s The Long Hot Summer. In the ’70s, Franciosa’s rakish charm served him well in three TV series, The Name of the Game, Search and Matt Helm.

But his hair-trigger temper caused him problems offscreen. In 1957 he served 10 days in L.A.’s county jail for punching out a photographer. And in 1970, at the peak of his TV fame, NBC executives complained he had been causing “wear and tear” on the set and fired him from Name of the Game. A 1975 TV Guide article summed up his image as “hotheaded” and “arrogant.”

His volatility can be traced back to a restless youth in East Harlem. “He was never taught how to control his temper,” says his wife, Rita. Born Anthony Papaleo, the only child of Anthony Sr., a construction worker, and his wife, Jean, a seamstress, he was a year old when his parents divorced and says he felt abandoned by his father, whom he rarely saw. After graduating from high school, he worked odd jobs, then, on a whim, successfully auditioned at 18 for a YWCA production of Chekhov’s The Seagull By 22, Anthony Franciosa (he had taken his mother’s maiden name) was studying at the Actors Studio. At 25, he made his Broadway debut in End as a Man.

Soon afterward, though married at the time to writer Beatrice Bakalyar, he fell in love with Shelley Winters, an Actors Studio classmate. After his divorce he and Winters wed in 1957. That same year, he flew to L.A. to reprise his role in the film version of Hatful (for which he was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee). At 28, he was stunned when studios began bidding for his services. “I didn’t feel like I was ready for any of it,” he says.

Nor, it seemed, was he ready for married life. In 1960, after learning of his fling with Judy Kanter, a Beverly Hills real estate agent, Winters filed for divorce. A year later, Franciosa and Kanter wed”. That marriage lasted six years and produced a daughter, Nina, now 31 and a mortgage consultant.

Even when he moved on to TV work, Franciosa’s bad-boy rep dogged him. On ABC’s Matt Helm (1975-76), he got into a fistfight with a director. But by 1984, when he starred in ABC’s Finder of Lost Loves, he had chilled out. “He was a true gentleman,” says costar Deborah Adair.

He praises his current wife for taming his temper. “I changed him a lot,” agrees Rita Thiel, 54, a former German fashion model who met him at an L.A. club in 1967 and married him three years later. “I saw that when he started learning a script, he’d be uptight. I’d say, ‘I’ll study lines with you, and you’ll be great.’ We still have good fights once in a while, but I can scream back at him.”

Last Nov. 27 the couple celebrated their 25th anniversary by renewing their vows at a church near their home. “It was great,” says Franciosa. “Everyone was there.” That included daughter Nina and his two sons with Rita: Christopher, 27, a Los Angeles actor and playwright, and Marco, 25, an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington. That night, Franciosa and Thiel slept at the Hotel Bel-Air, where they had honeymooned.

Now they’re waiting to see if City Hall will be Franciosa’s comeback ticket. “He put his best into it,” says Rita. “He says there’s never a small part, only a small actor. I think that’s right.”



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