Once upon a time in Spain, an obscure Italian director took A Fistful Of Dollars and single-handedly used a bit of spaghetti to shoot the stagnating western genre back to popularity. The good, bad, and ugly...
Sergio Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer, Vincenzo Leone, and the actress, Francesca Bertini. He was born in Rome on 3 January 1929. Given this background, it is no surprise that he started working in film in his teens. After seeing his father working on film sets, he dropped out of law school at the age of 18 to follow in his footsteps.
He began working in Italian cinematography as an assistant to Vittorio de Sica during the 1948 film 'Bicycle Thieves'.
He began writing screenplays in the 1950s for the 'sword and sandal' historical epics that were popular at the time before working as an assistant director on 'Quo Vadis' (1951) and 'Ben Hur' (1955) and made his solo directorial debut in 1960. In 1959, director Mario Bonnard fell ill while filming 'The Last Days of Pompeii' and Leone was asked to step in and finish the movie. This gave him enough experience to create his solo directorial debut – 'The Colossus of Rhodes' in 1961.
He did not invent the Spaghetti Western genre, but he created some of its most memorable films, overblown Cinemascope excesses that pushed relative unknown Clint Eastwood to stardom.
'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly', made in 1966, starred Clint Eastwood as "the Good", Lee van Cleef as "the Bad", and Eli Wallach as "the Ugly". The film is set at the tail end of the American Civil War, and details a race to capture some buried gold. It is perhaps best known for its sparse soundtrack, created by Ennio Morricone.
The film is often considered to be part of a trilogy with Leone's earlier films, 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964) and 'For a Few Dollars More' (1965).
Based on these successes, in 1967 he was invited to America to direct what he hoped would be his masterwork, 'Once Upon a Time in the West' for Paramount. Filmed mostly in Spain and Italy, and briefly Monument Valley, Utah, and starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale it emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American West. It was scripted by Leone's longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati.
The story was written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, the film was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its poor box-office results in America.
Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe and highly praised amongst film students in the US. It has come to be regarded by many as Leone's best film.
He directed a quick, money-making project starring James Coburn called 'A Fistful of Dynamite' in 1971, then turned down the opportunity to direct 'The Godfather', building up instead to another epic work, this time centred on American gangsters, 1984's 'Once Upon A Time In America'.
At his death in 1989 he was part way through planning yet another epic, this time on the Second World War battle for Leningrad. He had acquired $100 million worth of finance for the film and shooting was expected to start in 1990.
He died at the age of 60 on 30 April 1989 of a heart attack. He was survived by his wife and three children.