Showing posts with label Mario Puzo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mario Puzo. Show all posts

13 March 2018

Corrado Gaipa – actor

From The Godfather to voice of Alec Guinness

Corrado Gaipa was a talented character actor who appeared in more than 30 movies
Corrado Gaipa was a talented character actor who
appeared in more than 30 movies
The respected character actor and voice-dubber Corrado Gaipa was born on this day in 1925 in Palermo.

His versatility as a voice actor brought him considerable work at a time when Italian cinema audiences much preferred to watch dubbed versions of mainstream English-language films rather than hear the original soundtrack with subtitles.

Gaipa’s voice replaced that of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.  He was also heard dubbing Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, Telly Savalas in The Dirty Dozen and Lee J Cobb in The Exorcist.

He was the voice of a number of characters in animation films also, including Bagheera in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book and Scat-Cat in The Aristocats.

As an actor in his own right, he worked with many leading directors in Italian cinema, including Francesco Rosi and Vittorio Gassman.

His most famous role was probably that of Don Tommasino in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

In Mario Puzo’s story, Don Tommasino was an old friend in Sicily of the movie’s main character, Vito Corleone, who sold olive oil to restaurants and stores in New York on behalf of Tommasino.

Gaipa played Don Tommasino in the original Godfather movie
Gaipa played Don Tommasino in
the original Godfather movie
In return, Corleone calls on Tommasino for help in eliminating the local Mafia chief, Don Ciccio, who he believes was complicit in the murder of his parents.  Gaipa was partially disabled, needing to walk with a stick and sometimes using a wheelchair. As it happens, his character, Tommasino, is crippled by a shotgun blast from one of Ciccio’s bodyguards.

Later in the story, Vito Corleone calls on Tommasino, who replaces Ciccio as the local Mafia capo, to look after his son, Michael Corleone, during a period in which takes refuge in Sicily after committing two murders in New York.

Before embarking on his career, Gaipa was a student at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome, founded by the writer and critic Silvio D’Amico, and named after him following his death.

He made his stage debut in 1948 and for several years was an important actor in radio productions before moving into television.

After appearing on the small screen for the first time in a comedy called La rosa bianca  (The White Rose), he became a regular in TV drama series, including the 1973 hit Napoleon on Sant’Elena, in which he portrayed the English prime minister Lord Liverpool.

Although he struggled with his health over a long period, his death in 1989 at the age of 64 came rather suddenly, denying cinemagoers the chance to see him return to the role of Don Tommasino in The Godfather Part III, for which he was preparing at the time of his death.

Rome's Parioli district is an upmarket residential area
Rome's Parioli district is an upmarket residential area
Travel tip:

The Silvio D’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art can be found in Via Vincenzo Bellini where it meets Via Guido d’Arezzo in the Parioli district of Rome, between the Villa Borghese gardens and the vast Parco di Villa Ada. The academy, which has trained many leading Italian actors, now has university status.  Parioli is regarded as Rome’s most elegant residential area.

Palermo's Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy
Palermo's Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy
Travel tip:

Palermo, Gaipa’s home city, is blessed with a number of notable theatres, including the magnificent Teatro Massimo – the largest opera house in Italy – as well as Teatro Politeama, Teatro Biondo, Teatro di Verdura, Teatro Garibaldi and Teatro Santa Cecilia.  The city also boasts a number of theatres devoted to the Sicilian tradition of puppet theatre.

Also on this day:

2 November 2017

Luchino Visconti – director and writer

The aristocrat of Italian cinema

Luchino Visconti came from a family that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti came from a family
that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti, who most aficionados of Italian cinema would place among the top five directors of all time, was born in Milan on this day in 1906.

Visconti’s movies include Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Death in Venice and The Innocent.

One of the pioneers of neorealism – arguably the first to make a movie that could be so defined – Visconti was also known as the aristocrat of Italian cinema, figuratively but also literally. 

He was born Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, the seventh child of a family descendant from a branch of the House of Visconti, the family that ruled Milan from the late 13th century until the early Renaissance.

Paradoxically, although he maintained a lavish lifestyle, Visconti’s politics were of the left. During the First World War he joined the Italian Communist Party, and many of his films reflected his political leanings, featuring poor or working class people struggling for their rights.

He enraged Mussolini with his grim portrayal of Italy's poverty in Ossessione (1943), based on James M Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. His first movie as a director, and the film that spawned the neorealist genre that would be the hallmark of post-War Italian cinema, depicted Fascist Italy as a destitute, windblown country, robbed of its dignity. Visconti found himself for several months hounded by the Fascist regime.

The movie poster for the Visconti classic Rocco and His Brothers
The movie poster for the Visconti classic
Rocco and His Brothers
Visconti, who had not helped himself by allowing Communist agitators to hold clandestine meetings in the family palazzo in Milan, was arrested more than once and believed he would have been executed as a subversive had the Allied invasion not driven Mussolini from power.

He continued to explore neorealism in his 1948 movie La Terra Trema – The Earth Trembles – set in the post-War poverty of Sicily, and to an extent in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a story of the brutal life of Southern Italians trying to better themselves in Milan, said to have influenced Martin Scorsese in his making of Mean Streets and Raging Bull and Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation of Mario Puzo’s narrative in The Godfather.

Other Visconti films looked at social change as it affected the wealthy, but with a sense of empathy. The Leopard (1963), based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, was about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the Renaissance, while The Damned (1969) focussed on a wealthy German industrialist, whose lavish and decadent lifestyle collapses as the Nazis consolidate their grip on power in the 1930s.

Death in Venice (1971), the film for which he is most well known along with as Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, was largely concerned with the homosexual obsession of Dirk Bogarde’s character with a teenage boy, played by Bjorn Andresen.

Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn
Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti himself was openly gay and had relationships with the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, who appeared in a number of his films, and his fellow Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who worked with Visconti in the theatre.

Away from the big screen, Visconti was a huge fan of opera and directed productions at La Scala in Milan, several of which featured the great soprano Maria Callas, the Royal Opera House in London and the Vienna State Opera.

A heavy smoker, said to have worked his way through up to 120 cigarettes a day, he suffered a stroke in 1972 but continued to smoke and died in Rome from complications following another stroke on 1976.

From the 1950s, Visconti would frequently retreat to his villa on the island of Ischia, La Colombaia, built to have the look of a French medieval castle, which he had purchased from a baron and renovated to an impeccably high standard.

The villa now houses a foundation in his name and a museum dedicated to his life.

Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Travel tip:

Ischia is a volcanic island in the Bay of Naples, less famous than its neighbour, Capri, but some would argue to be more beautiful. Famous for its thermal springs and its mineral-rich mud, Ischia has been used as the backdrop for many films.  It has an impressive Aragonese castle, built on a rock near the island in 474 and accessed by a stone bridge.

The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
Travel tip:

Visconti grew up in the Palazzo Visconti di Modrone, a 16th century palace that can be found in Via Cino del Duca, about one kilometre from the centre of Milan.  It came into the possession of the modern Visconti family in the 19th century, when it changed hands for 750,000 lire Milanese.  The building, spread over three floors, is one of the richest examples of Milanese rococo.

31 January 2017

Bernardo Provenzano - Mafia boss

Head of Corleonesi clan dodged police for 43 years

Bernardo Provenzano after he was arrested in 2006 following 43 years on the run from police
Bernardo Provenzano after he was arrested in 2006
following 43 years on the run from police

Bernardo Provenzano, a Mafia boss who managed to evade the Sicilian police for 43 years after a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1963, was born on this day in 1933 in Corleone, the fabled town in the rugged countryside above Palermo that became famous for its association with Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.

The former farm labourer, who rose through the ranks to become the overall head - il capo di tutti i capi - of the so-called Cosa Nostra, lived for years under the eyes of the authorities in an opulent 18th century villa in a prestigious Palermo suburb, although ultimately he took refuge in the hills, alternating between two remote peasant farmhouses.

He was finally captured and imprisoned in 2006 and died in the prisoners' ward of a Milan hospital 10 years later, aged 83.

Although Provenzano assumed power during one of the bloodiest periods in Mafia history, he was eventually credited with rescuing the organisation from the brink of collapse by turning away from the violent path followed by his predecessor as capo di tutti i capi, Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, and restoring traditional Mafia values.

Corleone - the small agricultural town in the hills above Palermo that became a Mafia power hub
Corleone - the small agricultural town in the hills above
Palermo that became a Mafia power hub
Provenzano was born and raised in Corleone, the small agricultural town that acquired mythical status after Puzo chose Vito Corleone as the name for his fictional mafia boss in The Godfather.

He left school at the age of 10 to work in the fields at the time of the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943.  He and Riina knew each other as boys and they joined the Mafia as teenagers. Provenzano was an excellent shot and he and Riina were hired by the ambitious mobster Luciano Liggio as armed escorts in his cattle-rustling operation.

Provenzano and Riina were subsequently among the 14 gunmen who in 1958 helped Liggio seize control of the Corleonese clan by murdering its leader, Michele Navarra.  Provenzano was identified as one of the killers and implicated in several other murders during a power struggle that ensued within the Corleone clan following the Navarra slaying. A warrant for his arrest was issued in 1963 and he went into hiding.

He was seldom seen in public, refused to have his picture taken and never answered the telephone in person, so fearful was he that he would be found. Yet over the next four decades he would become one of the most powerful figures in organised crime in Italy.

For more than 40 years, these police mug shots were the only pictures by which the fugitive boss could be identified
For more than 40 years, these police mug shots were the
only pictures by which the fugitive boss could be identified
When Leggio was arrested and jailed in 1974, Riina became the boss of the Corleonese clan and chose Provenzano as his right-hand man.

Riina set his sights on taking over the Mafia throughout Sicily and on switching from traditional Mafia activities such as extortion and protection rackets to the heroin trade, which was far more lucrative. However, his ambitions met with fierce opposition from the Palermo families and sparked a civil war within the Cosa Nostra that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

Ultimately, Riina prevailed. But the bloodshed outraged public opinion, prompting a concerted crackdown on Mafia activities culminating in the “Maxi Trial” of 1986-87 that saw nearly 360 mobsters convicted.  Many were found guilty in absentia, including Riina and Provenzano.

Extraordinarily, Provenzano was all this time living in the spectacular 18th century Villa Valguarnara in Bagheria, which was his home for much of the 1980s and 1990s. He went to considerable lengths to keep himself invisible, never having a bank account or a telephone, communicating with associates by way of pizzini - typewritten coded notes folded into tiny squares - and travelling to meetings in an ambulance.

Riina's response to the "Maxi Trial" was to wage a new war on the State itself, in which high profile victims included the Euro MP and former Mayor of Palermo, Salvatore Lima, and Italy’s most prominent anti-Mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were murdered in Sicily within the space of five months in 1992.

These deaths caused still more public outrage and in January 1993 Riina was finally tracked down and arrested.

The anti-State campaign continued after Riina's arrest with a series of bomb attacks in public places in mainland Italy.  Five people, including a baby girl, were killed in 1993 when a car bomb exploded outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Torre dei Pulci, close to the Uffizi Gallery, which took the brunt of the 1993 bomb attack
The Torre dei Pulci, close to the Uffizi Gallery,
which took the brunt of the 1993 bomb attack
In the meantime, Provenzano had taken Riina's place as capo di tutti i capi. The bombings stopped, it is thought, because he saw the high levels of violence that characterised Riina's reign as being an impediment to Mafia operations, attracting unwanted attention from the authorities.

It is even suspected that it was Provenzano who tipped off the police, through intermediaries, about Riina's address, so that he could seize power and oversee a return to more traditional Mafia practices.

Despite Riina's arrest, Provenzano kept out of sight and for many years it was assumed he was dead. In fact, he was quietly rebuilding the organisation and restoring its financial power.

That he was alive came to light in January 2005 during the arrest of other suspected Mafiosi, when police discovered some of his type-written coded notes and, working on a tip-off from a supergrass, found him living in a shepherd’s refuge in the countryside outside Corleone.

He was arrested on April 11, 2006. Having been already convicted in absentia of several murders, including those of the judges Falcone and Borsellino, he was imprisoned with no requirement for a trial.

Paradoxically, for one who made his money from crimes supported by threats and violence, Provenzano was deeply religious. Associates described how his notes often included blessings or quotations from the bible, while he appeared at one meeting of Cosa Nostra bosses in 1992 dressed as a cardinal. When arrested, all that he took with him from the shepherd’s refuge were his medicine and his rosary.

Travel tip:

Corleone, a town of around 12,000 inhabitants in the province of Palermo, was once dominated by Arabs before falling into the hands of the Normans.  Its strategic position overlooking the main routes between Palermo and Agrigento meant it was on the frontline in many wars.  At one time the town had two castles and was encircled by a defensive wall.  Its association with the Mafia began in the 1960s following the outbreak of violence that followed the killing of Michele Navarra. The link was solidified when Mario Puzo decided his main character in The Godfather would be known as Vito Corleone after a United States immigration official processing the arrival of Vito Andolini mistook his place of origin for his surname.

Inside the cathedral at Monreale, just outside Palermo, with its fabulous Byzantine mosaics
Inside the cathedral at Monreale, just outside Palermo, with
its fabulous Byzantine mosaics
Travel tip:

Some of the most impressive buildings in Palermo were left behind following the period in which the Normans ruled after conquering Sicily in 1072. The Norman legacy was a blend of Romanesque architecture, Byzantine mosaics and Arabic domes.  Notable examples are the Palazzo dei Normanni on Piazza Indipendenza, where the Palatine Chapel features golden mosaics of scenes from the Bible, the Church of La Martorana in Piazza Bellini and, a little out of town, cathedral at Monreale, with ceilings and walls decorated by master mosaicists from Byzantium.

More reading:

How Giovane Falcone made taking on the Cosa Nostra his life's work

Paolo Borsellino - the other half of Sicily's dynamic duo of Mafia-busters

Lucky Luciano - mobster from Palermo who organised the gangs of New York

Also on this day:

1788: The death in Rome of Bonnie Prince Charlie, pretender to the English throne

1888: The death of the Saint, Don Bosco


24 August 2016

Carlo Gambino - Mafia Don

Sicilian thought to be model for Mario Puzo's Godfather

Carlo Gambino, pictured in a mug shot that the New York police had on file in the 1930s
Carlo Gambino, pictured in a mug shot that the New
 York police had on file in the 1930s
Carlo Gambino, who would become one of the most powerful Mafia Dons in the history of organised crime, was born on this day in 1902 in Palermo, Sicily.  

For almost two decades up to his death in 1976, he was head of the Gambino Crime Family, one of the so-called Five Families that have sought to control organised crime in New York under one banner or another for more than a century.

He is thought to have been the real-life Don that author Mario Puzo identified as the model for Vito Corleone, the fictional Don created for the best-selling novel, The Godfather.

During Gambino's peak years, the family's criminal activities realised revenues of an estimated $500 million per year.  Yet Gambino, who kept a modest house in Brooklyn and a holiday home on Long Island, claimed to make a living as a partner in a company that advised on labour relations.

Despite coming under intensive surveillance by the FBI, he managed to avoid prison during a life spent almost exclusively in crime.  Everything he did was planned meticulously to avoid detection, even down to communicating with associates through coded messages.

Gambino was born into a Sicilian family who were part of the so-called Honoured Society and moved to the United States in December 1921, by which time though still only 19 he was already able to call himself a 'Made Man' in Mafia parlance, having carried out a number of murders in the Palermo area.

He reached America as a stowaway on a ship that docked in Norfolk, Virginia, having survived allegedly on a diet of anchovies and wine.  From Virginia he travelled to New York, staying with cousins from the Castellano family.

Gambino was introduced to a crime family run by another Sicilian, Salvatore 'Toto' D'Aquila, and became part of a gang of young Jewish and Italian mobsters known as the Young Turks that included Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, also Sicilian.  Gambino soon became a prominent figure in the New York underworld but it would take him more than 35 years to establish himself as the city's most powerful Mafia boss.

Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, Gambino's rival and sometimes ally, who established the Mafia Commission
Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, Gambino's rival and sometimes
ally, who established the Mafia Commission
Along the way he was involved in the elimination of a series of rivals, although he was content to bide his time in his quest for power, spending 20 years as third in command of the former D'Aquila empire after Vincent Mangano took control.

Although he had ambitions of his own, he was also motivated by the knowledge that a Mafia not at war with itself would generate much greater profits for all concerned, hence he always respected Luciano, later a rival, but who set up The Commission as a Mafia governing body designed to settle disputes.

He moved up one place in the pecking order in 1951, when Mangano disappeared, presumed murdered, and Albert Anastasia, the notorious head of the execution squad known as Murder Incorporated, took charge.

The chance to grab control himself came in 1957 when Anastasia, prone to irrational outbursts, broke a Mafia rule that forbade the murder of outsiders, a code of conduct that had nothing to do with morals but which simply sought to prevent unwanted scrutiny from the authorities.

Gambino, reasoning that Anastasia was now discredited, teamed up with another mobster with designs on power and arranged to Anastasia to be killed, clearing the way for Gambino to seize control of Mangano's former empire and rename it after himself.

Gambino's coffin arrives at his funeral
Gambino's coffin arrives at his funeral
By the 1960s, Gambino effectively ran all crime in Manhattan, while the infiltration of the New York Longshoremen union gave him control of 90 per cent of the city's ports.  He retained power, seeing off a number of attempts to unseat him, until 1976, when he died of a heart attack at his holiday home.

His funeral at a church in a quiet residential area of Brooklyn was a ticket-only affair attended by 2000 people, including prominent members of all the Five Families, as well as numerous plain clothes detectives and FBI agents, who witnessed Gambino's body being buried in a $7,000 dollar bronze coffin.

Travel tip:

Despite its unfortunate associations with the history of organised crime, Palermo is well worth visiting. The capital of Sicily, it is a vibrant city with a wealth of beautiful architecture bearing testament to its rich history. It has examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces, while the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, is a marvellous example of Norman architecture.

The magnificent Teatro Massimo in Palermo
The magnificent Teatro Massimo in Palermo
Travel tip:

Palermo's Renaissance-style Teatro Massimo, opened in 1897, is the largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after the OpĂ©ra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna. It was originally designed with an auditorium for 3,000 people, although today there is a limit of 1,350.  There are also seven tiers of boxes. Enrico Caruso sang in a performance of La Gioconda during the opening season, returning to perform in Rigoletto at the end of his career. The theatre was closed for renovation for more than 20 years but reopened in 1997.   The final scenes of the third part of The Godfather Trilogy, based in Puzo's novel, was filmed there.

More reading:

Nino Rota - more to his music than just The Godfather

(Photo of Teatro Massimo by Bernhard J. Scheuvens CC BY-SA 2.5)