Franco Nero has been around. Since his star turn in the iconic Spaghetti Western Django, the Parma born movie star has appeared in more than 150 films, spanning all four corners of the globe. He’s been in musicals like Camelot (with his future wife Vanessa Redgrave), pumped up 80s action films like Die Hard 2, cop thrillers (The Marseille Connection), comedies (Cippola Colt) and even Bruce Lee inspired martial arts movies like Enter the Ninja.
“I did everything,” he explains,
“I think I’m the only actor who’s worked with the cinematography of all nations. I’ve done movies with a Brazilian director, an Australian director, films in Russia, Spain, Germany, Sweden, from all over the world. So I’ve had a lot of fun. Why not?”
Nero is in town to attend this year’s Cine Excess Film Festival, a three day conference on global cult cinema where the actor’s dedication to alternative films will see him pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award. The ceremony takes place immediately prior to a screening of Django and when OWF catches up with him in the screening room before hand, it’s startling to see how little the actor has changed since playing the laconic coffin dragging antihero (though Compañeros co-star Thomas Milian claims that Nero would deliberately ‘age up’ in his films, using make up to achieve an ageless effect later on in life).
Never-the-less, dressed in black, lean, olive skin, gregarious, those iconic blue eyes still glimmering with life, Nero is not your typical 69 year old. And Django, the film that made him an international star, is clearly still fresh in his mind.
“Django was a tough movie to make because it was shot in the winter time,” he says while settling into his cinema seat. “When we started, the key set, the village with the mud, wasn’t even finished. We didn’t have a script so when we interrupted the movie for the Christmas holidays, director Sergio Corbucci’s brother Bruno put together an outline scene by scene of what would happen right until the end.”
Despite the difficulties Nero and Corbucci became close, their relationship developing over three westerns (including The Mercenary and Compañeros). While that other Spaghetti heavyweight Sergio Leone had Clint Eastwood, Corbucci had Nero (arguably the more versatile actor).
“You know Corbucci and Sergio Leone came from the same school. They were two assistant directors on many of the same movies (including 1959s The Last Days of Pompeii) so they were enemies and friends at the same time. I think Corbucci was a little more ambitious.”
“He tried to be very original. I remember he offered me a western I couldn’t do because I was in America. It was called The Great Silence [made in 1968 with John-Louis Trintignant in the title role]. The lead had no words, a mute, and Corbucci said, ‘for the first time the lead actor dies and the bad guys survive!’ Corbucci was a man full of humour. On Django he kept saying to the lighting man, ‘hey you better put the proper light on those blue eyes of Franco’s because they’re going to make me a lot of money.’”
And those blue eyes haven’t done badly for Nero either. Born Francesco Sparanero in 1941 in provincial Italy, it was his striking look that first attracted John Huston who, as legend has it, spotted Nero taking photographs on the set of his epic The Bible and exclaimed, “That’s the face I want,” before casting him in the role of Abel. But Nero is more than a pretty face.
He has an easygoing charm that is as evident in person as it is onscreen. He loves to tell stories (referring to horror director Lucio Fulci as, “a big liar. He claimed he had dinner with Kennedy and Krushchev! All Bullshit!) but all told with an easy smile and a fond remembrance. Even the fact that he has been unable to shake off the Django persona despite an eclectic career (that will include this year’s Cars 2) doesn’t faze him.
“I am very happy that I’ve done Django,” he says. “I just came from making a film in Brazil and in Rio everyone knows this name, ‘hey Django. Django!” They know the name Django but always together with Franco Nero. Because they made other Django movies you know.”
That’s an understatement. The films success saw a plethora of unofficial sequels – like Django Kill and Django the Bastard – while some countries went even further than that.
“In Germany they have a complex with Django,” laughs Nero. “All the movies that I did they called them Django, you know? Like my film How to Kill a Judge, a political thriller, became Django with the Mafia. The Shark Hunter became Django versus the Shark! But you know it’s not my problem. And now Tarantino wants to do a Django movie…so ok.”
Ah yes that would be Django Unchained, the uber-geek filmmaker’s take on both the Spaghetti Western and America’s dubious history in the slave trade. Tarantino is notorious for peppering his films with cult character actors (Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, David Carradine in Kill Bill) leading to speculation that Nero is a shoe-in for a role in Django Unchained. The man himself isn’t so sure.
“I’ve never had an offer. I know only that Tarantino likes me a lot. In many interviews Tarantino kept talking about me and then one day in Rome at the opening of Kill Bill, Harvey Weinstein was on the stage and said that Quentin Tarantino couldn’t come because he was sick, but ‘he begged me to say hello to Franco Nero!’”
“So finally one and a half years ago Tarantino came to Rome and I had lunch with him. And he said, ‘I was 14 when I started to watch your movies,’ and he started to recite lines from my movies…he even remembered the music! But I haven’t heard anything after that. I was at the Festival of Berlin this year with Vanessa and Harvey Weinstein saw me at a party and said, ‘oh Franco you’re gonna be in Tarantino’s next movie,’ but that’s all I know. I’m happy that he will do a Django movie even if I don’t do it.”
And even if Nero doesn’t appear in Django Unchained, one gets the impression that he still isn’t done with the western….or with Tarantino. Along with his Keoma director and frequent collaborator Enzo G. Castellari (director of the original Inglorious Bastards) Nero is once again planning to head out west.
“We’re making a movie called The Angel, the Bad and the Wise and I asked Quentin, ‘would you be so kind as to do a cameo?’ He asked me, ‘’what have I got to do?’ so I said, ‘you will play a bandit and I will kill you. I will kill you with a shotgun and instead of having bullets I will shoot you will golden coins.’ He was so excited, screaming, ‘I love it! I love it!’ He wants his friends Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth to be the other bandits.”
The idea clearly excites him more than Django Unchained and while the film is still looking for funding, Nero is keen to get back in the saddle as soon as possible.
“I said to Enzo we better do it soon because if we wait one or two more years I’m going to have to play the toothless old man in the saloon. I’m getting too old; I have to do it now!” He says this with a laugh but he needn’t worry; Nero still seems more like a youthful leading man than an aged movie veteran. Not bad, for someone who’s been around.
Thanks to Franco Nero, Paul Smith and everyone at Cine Excess.
This article was first posted on June 2, 2011