The first time Vanessa Redgrave scandalized movie fans, it was not for a cause but for a man. Even more implausible, he was the nonintellectual, hedonistic if charming Italian actor Franco Nero. Imported to Hollywood as the next Latin heartthrob, Franco played a dashing Lancelot to her Guenevere in Camelot, and their romance flowered off-camera. Two years later, in 1969, Vanessa proudly announced that she would bear Franco’s child, happily unwed. “When women say to me, ‘I’m going to have your baby,’ I’m always skeptical,” says Nero today. “But when Carlo was born, I saw he had a whorl of hair above his temple just like I have, and I said, ‘That’s my boy.’ ” Franco, 36, is long back in his beloved Italy (“If they made me stay in Hollywood a month longer, I would have committed suicide”), apart from but simpatico with Redgrave.
As for his career, Franco’s American admirers needn’t worry that his swash has buckled. Making one of his periodic forays out of the dub-and-subtitle circuit, he appears in two major made-by-Hollywood properties this season. One is the CBS version of the Harold Robbins novel The Pirate, unspooling for four hours this week. Then next month he turns big-screen villain as a double agent in a World War II sequel epic, Force 10 from Navarone.
Where’s he been meanwhile? “All my life I have been running away,” explains Nero. “Whenever a woman tries to tie me down in one place, I run off. I’m a gypsy, a nomad. People call me an orso, a bear, because I hate groups, clans.” Besides, he figures, “It’s better to be one of the two or three biggest European stars than a fish out of water in Hollywood.” Indeed, Nero has tirelessly ground out some 60 movies, most never released in the U.S., but enough to establish him internationally in a pantheon with that other spaghetti Western hero, Clint Eastwood.
Success buys Franco his measure of la dolce vita—but on his terms. Still never married (“It doesn’t suit me”), he prefers the companionship of secretaries and shopgirls to Rome’s bel mondo. “I like simple things and real people,” he explains. The bear’s habitat is no great villa but a Roman flat (where his mother and sister look after him) and a rural farm he bought his folks south of the capital. He plays soccer with pals and, when abroad, takes his cook along to fix pasta.
Nero traces his wandering nature to a gypsy grandmother, though he was born Carlo Sparanero in the northern city of Parma, the oldest son of a sergeant in Italy’s carabiniere. Helping at first to support his family in shop-keeping jobs (“We were quite poor”), he dabbled as a Sinatra-style singer, then served in the Italian army and worked as an accountant for a public utility (“I was the worst clerk they ever had”). During these years he maintained an interest in the theater that had begun when he carried a spear in a Parmesan production of Aïda. (Later he appeared as part of the backdrop to the likes of Callas and Tebaldi.)
A job as a photographer’s assistant in Rome led to the movies. “I was working as a set photographer on De Laurentiis’ The Bible,” Franco recounts. “Director John Huston had seen a photo of me and said, ‘That’s the face I want.’ I was given the part of Abel.” Nero bluffed his way into more movies—en route to Camelot and Redgrave. “When a director asks me, ‘Can you do this?’—dancing, sword-fighting, anything—I always say yes, then go away and practice like mad in front of a mirror.”
Nero still says that Vanessa was “the only woman in my life” and blames their split-up after six years on the culture gap. “The Redgraves were quite an imposing family,” he says. “But our relationship was damaged by her friends; they were enemies to me.” Their son Carlo’s home is with Vanessa in London, but the boy spends five exuberant months a year with his father. Franco still sees Vanessa, and last summer they jointly took Carlo on a fishing holiday.
An avid sportsman, Nero plays tennis and has built a paddleball court on his farm (inspired by his friend, neighbor and “co-president” of the Rome baseball team, Anthony Quinn). “I like to play boccie, drink wine with friends and bet,” he says. “I travel when I want, have fresh eggs, wine and oil from my farm, enjoy the good life,” he continues. What about Redgrave? “I think we love each other even now,” muses Franco. Then he adds: “We will always love each other.”