1 March 2017

Cesare Danova - movie actor

Acclaim came late for Bergamo-born star

Cesare Danova
Cesare Danova 
The actor Cesare Danova, who appeared in more than 300 films and TV shows over the course of a 45-year career, was born Cesare Deitinger on this day in 1926 in the Lombardy city of Bergamo. 

The son of an Austrian father and an Italian mother, he adopted Danova as his professional name after meeting the film producer, Dino De Laurentiis, in Rome.

De Laurentiis gave him a screen test and was so impressed he immediately cast Danova in the 1947 movie The Captain's Daughter, playing alongside Amedeo Nazzari and Vittorio Gassman.

So began a career that was to see Danova star opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 hit Cleopatra, opposite Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), alongside Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese's cult movie Mean Streets (1973) and as part of a star-studded cast in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).

Danova made his big screen debut in 1947 in the film
The Captain's Daughter, starring  Irasema Dilián
In his later years, Danova became a familiar figure on TV screens in America, making appearances in almost all the popular drama series of the 1980s, including Charlie's Angels, Murder, She Wrote, Falcon Crest, Hart to Hart and Mission: Impossible.

He never retired.  Indeed, he had appeared in an episode of In the Heat of the Night shortly before he died in 1992 of a heart attack, aged 66.

Danova was an individual blessed with a wide range of talents. He spoke five languages, was a licensed pilot and a self-taught painter.

Standing 6ft 4ins (1.93m) tall, he was also an accomplished athlete, winning a fencing championship at the age of 15 and playing for the Italian national rugby team at 17. He was a low-handicap golfer, a respectable tennis player, an amateur swimming champion, an expert horseman and polo player, and a master archer.

Danova (left) with Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorcese on the set of the 1973 cult movie Mean Streets
Danova (left) with Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese on the
set of the 1973 cult movie Mean Streets
He might have made a career in professional sport but his parents wanted him to become a doctor.  While studying at Rome University, he became interested in acting, but was determined not to disappoint his parents and pushed himself so hard in his academic work he suffered a nervous breakdown.

It was while he was recuperating that a friend introduced him to De Laurentiis, by then an up-and-coming producer, whose gamble on giving this unknown a part in a prestigious title paid off, launching Danova as a kind of Italian Errol Flynn, cast as the dashing lead in about 20 Italian action-romance movies.

Danova moved to the United States in the 1950s. he had been spotted by MGM when appearing in the German-backed 1955 movie Don Giovanni and signed a long-term contract with the studio in June 1956.

He was touted as a possible Ben-Hur amid stories that director William Wyler had lured him from Europe specifically to be groomed for the lead role in what was a carefully planned epic production. He was talked about as a glamour boy to fill the shoes of Rudolph Valentino.

The original movie poster from Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets
The original movie poster from
Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets
Danova spoke no English when he arrived in the United States but spent six months learning the language and it seemed certain he would land the role. However, just as filming was about to begin in March 1957, Wyler decided he did not want an actor with an accent and instead chose Charlton Heston. Danova was stunned, believing the role would have made him an international star. Indeed, it won Heston an Oscar for best actor.

Clearly, luck was not always Danova's friend.  When he was given his second chance to break through as a major star, he was cast in Cleopatra as one of a trio of lovers vying for the attention of the glamorous ruler of Egypt alongside Rex Harrison's Julius Caesar and Richard Burton's Marc Antony. He filmed a number of love scenes with Elizabeth Taylor. But after a real-life romance between Taylor and Burton made headlines, the producers decided they needed to exploit the Burton-Taylor chemistry and most of Danova's scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Thereafter, the stellar hit he craved never really came about, although he would win acclaim in the 70s as the Mafia Don Giovanni Cappa in Mean Streets, Scorsese's brilliant story about life among the small-time hoods in New York, and as corrupt mayor Carmine DePasto in Animal House. 

Married twice, Danova had two sons, Marco and Fabrizio, by his first wife, Pamela.

The Palazzo della Ragione in Bergamo's Piazza Vecchia
The Palazzo della Ragione in Bergamo's Piazza Vecchia
Travel tip:

Most visitors to the Lombardy city of Bergamo, where Danova was born, want to spend some time in Piazza Vecchia, the beautiful square at the heart of the Città Alta, the historic city that stands on a hill above Bergamo's more modern metropolis. Features of the square are the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, which has a beautiful covered staircase to one side, the tall bell tower known as il Campanone, the 14th century Palazzo del Podesta Veneto (the Palace of the Mayor of Venice), which is now part of the University of Bergamo, the white marble Biblioteca Civica, the fountain decorated with white marble lions, which was donated to the city in 1780 by former mayor Alvise Contarini, and the statue of Torquato Tasso, one of the greatest Italian renaissance poets, who was the son of a Bergamo nobleman.

Find a hotel in Bergamo with Hotels.com

The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza
The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza
Travel tip:

The University of Rome - often referred to as the Sapienza University of Rome or simply La Sapienza, meaning 'knowledge' - was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII, as a place for  ecclesiastical studies over which he could exert greater control than the already established universities of Bologna and Padua. The first pontifical university, it expanded in the 15th century to include schools of Law, Medicine, Philosophy and Theology. Money raised from a new tax on wine enabled the University to buy a palace, which later housed the Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church. The University was closed during the sack of Rome in 1527 but reopened by Pope Paul III in 1534. In 1870, La Sapienza ceased to be the papal university and as the university of the capital of Italy became recognised as the country's most prestigious seat of learning. A new modern campus was built in 1935 under the guidance of the architect Marcello Piacentini. 

More reading:

Dino De Laurentiis, the former pasta salesman who helped sell Italian cinema to the world

How Amedeo Nazzari was touted as Italy's Errol Flynn

Why Rossano Brazzi gave up a legal career to go to Hollywood

Also on this day:

1773: The death of architect Luigi Vanvitelli, who built the Royal Palace at Caserta

1869: The birth of sculptor Pietro Canonica

1930: The birth of cycling champion Gastone Nencini

Selected books:

The History of Italian Cinema: A Guide To Italian Film From Its Origins To The Twenty-First Century, by Gian Piero Brunetta

A History of Italian Cinema, by Peter Bondanella and Federico Pacchioni

(Picture credit: Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza by Fb78 via Wikimedia Commons)


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