- 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.

In 1950, he went into business with another rising director, Carlo Ponti. They soon dominated the Italian movie business, monopolizing top stars such as Mangano, Sophia Loren (who later married Ponti) and Marcello Mastroianni. Their first international production was the epic “War and Peace” (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer) in 1955.

With the lure of huge salaries, he often imported international movie stars to boost a film’s prospects. For Fellini’s “La Strada,” which won the Academy Award for foreign language film in 1957, he persuaded Anthony Quinn to come to Rome. De Laurentiis also produced Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” which won the foreign film Oscar a year later.

At Dinocitta, De Laurentiis married Hollywood stars with spectacle: “Barrabas” (Quinn); “The Bible” (George C. Scott, Ava Gardner); “Anzio” (Robert Mitchum); “Waterloo” (Rod Steiger). He also made more offbeat fare, such as Roger Vadim’s sex romp, “Barbarella” (Jane Fonda).

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 began to move away from his base in Italy in the 1960s when the government changed the rules to mandate totally Italian productions to qualify for subsidies. He sold Dinocitta to the government in 1972. He relocated the studio in Wilmington, N.C., and dubbed his production company the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

The Oscar-winning “Serpico,” in 1973 with Al Pacino, was De Laurentiis’ Hollywood debut. Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish,” Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and John Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist,” followed.

He often stayed loyal to young, talented directors, even though the results weren’t always strong. He made “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” with Robert Altman. Even after Michael Cimino’s huge flop “Heaven’s Gate,” De Laurentiis made “Year of the Dragon” and “Desperate Hours” with him. Despite the failure of “Dune,” he stuck with David Lynch and two years later produced the acclaimed “Blue Velvet.”

De Laurentis also continued to be a small factory for tackiness. Though he had earlier worked with revered filmmakers such as Victorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Ingmar Bergman, some of his schlock included the plantation drama “Mandingo,” the horror film “Amityville II,” the cult comedy “Army of Darkness” and Madonna’s “Body of Evidence.”

Though flops like “King Kong” and “Hurricane” could be shaken off, personal tragedy took its toll. In 1981, his son Federico was killed in a plane crash. Mangano, his wife of more than four decades, died in 1989.

De Laurentiis, close to 70, was undaunted and started over. Within two years, he had a new wife, 29-year-old Martha Schumacher, formed a new company and started producing moneymakers again.

“My philosophy is very simple,” he once said. “To feel young, you must work as long as you can.”

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan, Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle and Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York, and former AP writer Candice Hughes contributed to this report.