At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Massimo Troisi – actor, writer and director

Tragic star died hours after completing finest work

Troisi was only 41 when he died in 1994, hours after finishing Il Postino
Troisi was only 41 when he died in 1994,
hours after finishing Il Postino
Massimo Troisi, the comic actor, writer and director who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994 only 12 hours after shooting finished on his greatest movie, was born on this day in 1953 in a suburb of Naples.

Troisi co-directed and starred in Il Postino, which won an Oscar for best soundtrack after being nominated in five categories, the most nominations in Academy Award history for an Italian film.

He also wrote much of the screenplay for the movie, based on a novel, Burning Patience, by the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta, which tells the story of a Chilean poet exiled on an Italian island and his friendship with a postman whose round consists only of the poet’s isolated house.

Plagued by heart problems for much of his life, the result of several bouts of rheumatic fever when he was a child, Troisi was told just before shooting was due to begin that he needed an urgent transplant operation.

However, he was so committed to the project, a joint enterprise with his friend, the British director Michael Radford, he decided to postpone his surgery.  He was so ill that he collapsed on set on the third day but recovered to continue, shooting many of his location scenes in one take, with a body double used for any shots that required physical activity, and invariably unable to last for more than an hour before succumbing to exhaustion.

Yet he completed the movie, for which the location shots were shared between the islands of Pantelleria and Salina – off Sicily - and Procida, in the Bay of Naples, and then travelled from Naples to his sister’s house in Ostia, outside Rome. He had tickets booked on a plane to London, where he was due to receive a new heart at the famous Harefield Hospital the following day.  Sadly, he had a cardiac arrest during the night and never woke from sleep.

Massimo Troisi (left) and Lello Arena in the staircase scene from Troisi's second film, Scusate il ritardo
Massimo Troisi (left) and Lello Arena in the staircase
scene from Troisi's second film, Scusate il ritardo
Troisi, who had a successful career as a comedian on radio and television before turning to film, wrote and directed six movies, in which he also starred, and acted in half a dozen others.

Born in San Giorgio a Cremano, a town in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius about 6km (3.75 miles) south of central Naples, he grew up in a large house in Via Cavalli di Bronzo, which his mother and father, a railway engineer, and their six children shared with his mother’s parents and seven other members of the extended family.

He suffered his first brush with rheumatic fever, common among poor children in Naples at the time, when he was very young and had to travel to the United States for heart surgery when he was 23, by which time he was already well known on the Naples cabaret circuit as part of a comic trio he had formed with two childhood friends.

Their success led to their own radio show and then to regular appearances on prime television shows such as the popular Luna Park.  Troisi’s talent was compared to his boyhood idols from the tradition of Neapolitan comedy, Totò and Eduardo and Peppino De Filippo.

Troisi is one of only seven actors to be  nominated posthumously for an Oscar
Troisi is one of only seven actors to be
nominated posthumously for an Oscar
After the trio broke up in the late seventies, Troisi turned to film, winning critical appraisal and box office success with his first venture, Ricomincio da tre (I start again from three), in 1981.

Due to his fears that his second effort would not be as good as his first, it was two years before he made another movie, but Scusate il Ritardo (Sorry for the delay) was just as well received.  Like his first film, it focussed on the troublesome love life of the Neapolitan lead character, drawing on his own life experiences, told with sometimes surreal humour. 

It featured dialogues between Troisi’s character, Vincenzo, and his friend Tonino, played by his childhood friend Lello Arena, that were so memorable that the Via Mariconda stairs in the Chiaia district of Naples, where they were filmed, have recently been renamed the Scale Massimo Troisi in his honour.  Arena received a David di Donatello award for Best Supporting Actor.

Troisi had more success starring opposite Roberto Benigni in Non ci resta che piangere (Nothing to do but cry), about two friends accidentally transported in time to the 15th century, where they meet Leonardo da Vinci and attempt to stop Christopher Columbus discovering America.

Troisi starred in several films directed by Ettore Scola before teaming up with Radford for Il Postino, which they wrote together in just three weeks in a hotel room in Santa Monica, outside Los Angeles.  It was his first American studio production and ensured he found fame outside Italy, as many thought his talent deserved, and he was nominated posthumously for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, one of only seven actors to be given that distinction.

The Villa Vannucchi at San Giorgio a Cremano  has extensive monumental gardens
The Villa Vannucchi at San Giorgio a Cremano
has extensive monumental gardens
Travel tip:

Now a densely populated suburb of the Naples metropolis, San Giorgio a Cremano enjoyed his heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, when as one of the five towns first encountered by travellers heading south from Naples, along with Portici, Ercolano, Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziata, it became a popular resort with wealthy and aristocratic families, whose sumptuous summer residences became known as the Ville Vesuviane (Vesuvian Villas).

The picturesque harbour and historic centre of Procida
The picturesque harbour and historic centre of Procida
Travel tip:

Procida is a small but heavily populated island between the Naples mainland and its much larger and better-known neighbour Ischia, characterised by its narrow streets and colourful harbourside houses. Its lack of tourists compared with Ischia and particularly Capri give it a much more authentic feel and Michael Radford is not the only movie director to appreciate its value as a location.  In 1999, Anthony Minghella brought members of a star-studded cast including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law to the island to film several scenes from The Talented Mr Ripley.

More reading: 

Roberto Benigni - Italy's first male Oscar winner


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