- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dino De Laurentiis, one of the last great, intrepid film producers who with unmatched showmanship shepherded movies as varied as “La Strada” and “Barbarella,” has died. He was 91.

“My grandfather was a true inspiration. 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 Thursday.

De Laurentiis helped build the Italian film industry during the heyday of its New Wave, oversaw seminal American films such as “Serpico” and “Blue Velvet,” and pursued blockbusters in flops like “Dune” and critical fiascos such as the 1976 remake of “King Kong.”

In producing more than 500 wide-ranging films over six decades, he presided over an incredible mix of high and low. That the same filmmaker could be involved with Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Conan the Barbarian” would seem to contradict normal understanding of taste. Instead, he was irrevocably drawn to the spectacle of the movies.

“Our industry is a special one,” he told The Associated Press in 1998. “You deal every day with different people, creative people. Every day is different at work. To produce a movie, you have to create the star, you make script, you find director. You have to shoot the movie.”

De Laurentiis, who died Wednesday night in Beverly Hills, pioneered the way films were sold internationally. He played the part of entrepreneur in grand style, dressing in fine suits and frequently sipping cappuccino. The sprawling studio complex he built on the outskirts of Rome he dubbed Dinocitta (Dino City).

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

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.

Though he initially trained in Rome to be an actor, De Laurentiis once said, “I see my face in the mirror, and I said, ‘No, my ambition is not to be an actor.’ I realized the exciting place was behind the camera with the producer, director and so on.”

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

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi sent a telegram of condolences to the family on Thursday, saying De Laurentiis had been a “protagonist of a century of cinema in Italy and America.” Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said his “long and passionate” career had “contributed to the rebirth of Italian cinema in the post-World War II years.”

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. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 2001.

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.”

Lynch recalled him as having “more energy than ten people on PCP.”

“If something ever came up that required something to be done, Dino’s hand would in one millisecond go to the phone and deal with the thing, get the thing done,” said Lynch. “There’s maybe no rhyme or reason to what struck his fancy, but when he got it, he was just a pitbull.”

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.”

Dino always said you need three things in life: brains, heart and balls, and I hope I’ve exemplified that advice throughout my career,” Schwarzenegger, who credits De Laurentiis with his big break in movies, said Thursday in a statement.

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. The strain of the loss helped end De Laurentiis‘ marriage to Mangano. They were divorced in 1988, the same year De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went into bankruptcy, finished off by the flop of “King Kong Lives.”

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.”

Survivors include three daughters with Mangano _ Rafaela, Francesca and Veronica _ and two with Schumacher: Carolina and Dina. Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.

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