By Lee Kelly
March 03, 1980 12:00 PM

While the movie was shooting, Franny Cuello was in a four-week coma

The most exciting stallion in movies is suddenly equine rather than Italian for the first time since 1976. The new stud, of course, is the hero of producer Francis Coppola’s The Black Stallion, a purebred Arabian from Texas named Cass Ole. In the lovely adaptation of Walter Farley’s children’s classic, the horse saves the life of co-star Kelly Reno, rearing dramatically in the boy’s imagination as a vision of power and beauty. Cass Ole has played a strikingly similar role in a life-and-death struggle waged by his owner, Francesca “Franny” Cuello, 19, who credits her recovery from near-fatal head injuries to her love for Ole.

In June 1977 the truck Franny was driving blew a tire and rolled over three times into a ditch, just 10 hours before she was to fly to Stallion’s Canadian location. She suffered a severe brain contusion. Specialists gave her a 50-50 chance to live and said any recovery would take two years. When she awoke from a four-week coma, her memory was gone, and she was paralyzed except for her left hand.

To strengthen her limbs, her family laboriously exercised her arms and legs daily. And to exercise her mind, they related tales of Cass Ole’s movie adventures. Like Ole’s 11-week training session under Glen Randall Sr., who once trained Roy Rogers’ Trigger and the chariot horses in Ben Hur Or how Ole’s four white “socks” and forehead star had been dyed black and a “wig” plaited into his mane to make him resemble the book’s pure black steed. Franny was relieved to hear that five stand-in horses subbed for her prize stallion in dangerous scenes like a shipwreck.

To everyone’s surprise, only three months after her accident Franny returned to high school in a wheelchair. She graduated with honors the next year. And six months after the wreck she mounted Cass Ole for a tentative but triumphant ride. “It was like being born,” Franny says now. “I had to learn to walk, talk and ride again. My family and my horse gave me something to strive for.”

The eldest of four children of Dr. Leo Cuello, a prominent heart surgeon and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Dr. Elena Villa-vicencio, an endocrinologist, Franny now is a freshman at nearby Trinity University. The family, which emigrated from Puerto Rico 10 years ago, lives in a sprawling six-bedroom Spanish-style house on an eight-acre spread with two Rolls-Royces, a swimming pool and a stable of 33 Arabian horses. Dr. Cuello bought the 11-year-old Ole for Franny for $12,000 nine years ago (he’s now insured for $250,000), and his stud fee has doubled since the movie to $1,500 for the 30-odd mares he’ll service this year.

Franny still walks with a cane and is undecided about her former plans for law school, but she grows stronger daily and has a boyfriend. She has resumed riding Cass Ole in Western show competitions, but the movie star’s career may intervene. The horse is under seven-year contract to Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and a sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, is planned. Next time Franny will be there. “Not even another wreck could keep me from the filming,” Franny vows. Asked her reaction after watching the original, she glows: “I could have died and gone to heaven.”