- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - He was a small man who dreamed big, hit the highest heights and failed like few others.

Dino De Laurentiis was born to be a movie producer.

The Academy Award-winning legend of the Italian New Wave and producer of “Serpico” and “Barbarella” who helped revolutionize the way movies are bankrolled and helped personify the no-limits life of a cinematic king, died Wednesday night at the age of 91 in Beverly Hills.

His dozens of credits included the art-house classics “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria,” the cult favorite “Blue Velvet,” the Hollywood epics “War and Peace” and “The Bible,” and such mainstream hits as “Three Days of the Condor.” He backed horror films (“Halloween 2”), police drama (“Serpico”) and the most far-out science fiction fused with sex and sexuality (“Barbarella”).

And when he bombed, he really bombed: “Dune,” about which director David Lynch complained he was denied creative control; the Madonna vehicle “Body of Evidence”; the 1976 remake of “King, Kong,” which nearly finished off the career of Jessica Lange before it really started.

Not all his movies had big budgets, but De Laurentiis didn’t think a film was real without real money. “Night of Earth” director Jim Jarmusch has spoken of meeting with the producer at his office, where De Laurentiis’ desk was big as Jarmusch’s apartment. He spoke to Jarmusch about the director’s low-cost productions.

“He asked me, ‘Why do you make amateur films instead of professional ones?’” Jarmusch once recalled. “I asked what made a film amateur or professional. He said any film that costs more than $5 million is professional.”

De Laurentiis was one of the first producers to understand the box-office potential of foreign audiences, and helped invent international co-productions, raising money by pre-selling distribution rights outside North America.

He was tiny, but tough, a veritable Napoleon on the set and utterly tireless. “Such a little lion,” was how his second wife, producer Martha De Laurentiis, put it when he turned 80.

Throughout his career, he alternated lavish, big-budget productions with less commercial films by directors such as Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Lynch, and he often packaged the blockbusters with art films to secure distribution for the smaller films.

“The extraordinary thing that Dino taught all of us is the true figure of the independent producer,” De Laurentiis’ nephew, Aurelio De Laurentiis, a noted Italian film producer, said Thursday. “He always behaved in the U.S. as a major studio, even though he was a one-man show.”

“He was my biggest champion in life and a constant source for wisdom and advice. I will miss him dearly,” granddaughter Giada De Laurentiis, a star chef and host on Food Network, said.

Raised outside of Naples and one of six children born into the family’s pasta-making business, De Laurentiis quickly realized that his destiny was in moviemaking.

He was central to the rise of Italy’s film industry, which in the 1950s rose to international prominence as the Italian New Wave.

De Laurentiis’ initial success began after World War II, starting with “Bitter Rice,” in 1948, which launched the career of his first wife, Silvana Mangano.

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