In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino wants the audience to know right from the get-go just how dire the prospects of Leonardo DiCaprio’s TV heavy, Rick Dalton, have become in the topsy-turvy Tinseltown landscape of 1969. How does he signal that exactly? An agent (played by Al Pacino with lip-smacking, scenery-chewing relish) tells him that he can give his career a shot in the arm by going to Italy and starring in quickie spaghetti Westerns like Nebraska Jim and macaroni spy knockoffs such as Operazione Dyn-O-Mite!
Of course, since it’s a Tarantino movie, this particular vocational crossroads isn’t just pulled from the cinema-fiction ether. The movie-mad director took his inspiration from cinema fact. In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino is referencing and riffing on the handfuls of struggling, real-life American
B-listers and macho small-screen wannabes who made the transatlantic pilgrimage to Italy (and Spain) in a desperate bid to become the next expat leading man à la Clint Eastwood (who’d rocketed to international fame thanks to Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Here, a look at Eastwood and some of the other Hollywood hopefuls who headed to Rome for a career boost and the dream of a once-upon-a-time, fairy-tale ending.
Eastwood was lucky to land in one of the last waves of studio contract actors in the ’50s. But that “luck” meant being shoehorned into dreck like Francis in the Navy and Tarantula. He got luckier being cast as Rowdy Yates on the hit TV show Rawhide. Still, he wasn’t a leading man. That wouldn’t come until Italian director Sergio Leone cast him as the “Man With No Name” in his 1964 spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood agreed to do the film because it was a paid vacation to Spain during his TV hiatus. Also because if it stunk, no one in America would ever see it. Needless to say, it didn’t … and they did. A star was born. And so was a new star-making template.
Aware of how well his pal Clint had made out with Sergio Leone, Reynolds thought he’d copy him. Reynolds was a former stuntman who, like Eastwood, had landed a recurring gig on a TV Western — Gunsmoke. And also like Eastwood, he was hungry for the bigger screen. So when his agent told him that “Sergio” wanted him for his next Western, he hopped on a plane. It was only once he got to the set of 1966’s Navajo Joe that he discovered that his Sergio wasn’t Leone but the less-talented Sergio Corbucci — a name which, by the way, gets checked by Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Charles Dennis Buchinsky, who spent his early years working in Pennsylvania’s coal mines, had a more uphill battle than most in Hollywood in the ’50s. He was rugged, but his lined-and-leathery mug was hardly the face of a matinee idol. Yet there was something about his laconic, man-of-few-words personality that seemed tailor-made for Italian audiences hungry for American imports. Bronson was a TV journeyman who’d had a couple of juicy parts in big-budget ensembles such as 1963’s The Great Escape and 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. But when Leone asked him to play the mysterious, haunted “Harmonica” in what would become the maestro’s masterpiece, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West (opposite Henry Fonda and Jason Robards, no less), he jumped. Bronson actually liked working for the Italians (the hefty paychecks didn’t hurt either). He liked it so much that in 1970, he returned to star as a double-crossed hit man in Sergio Sollima’s Violent City, which kick-started the sort of modern-day, street-smart tough guys he’d quickly run into the ground Stateside with the Deathwish movies.
Lee Van Cleef
Prior to heading to Europe to share the screen with Eastwood in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Van Cleef was strictly a small-screen heavy not unlike DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. With his sweaty, beady-eyed squint and sinister, ever-present smirk, he was a villain straight out of central casting. Every season, he turned up as a one-episode bad guy on disposable pulp like Wanted: Dead or Alive and Shotgun Slade. But Leone brilliantly saw in Van Cleef a face made for his signature super-tight close-ups. Finding the work steady and the pickings bountiful, he stuck around to feast on further spaghetti entrées like 1967’s Death Rides a Horse (good), 1969’s Sabata (not quite bad), and 1975’s Take a Hard Ride (fairly ugly). He’d eventually earn cult status back on his home turf in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.
Even after receiving Best Supporting Oscar nominations for 1952’s Sudden Fear and 1953’s Shane, Palance found it hard to break out of the bad-guy ghetto in Hollywood. What’s a serious actor to do? Well, bust out your passport, for one. With his lantern chin and rock-tumbler voice that turned every line into a threat or an insinuation, Palance was a big-time star in Italy — and not just as a black hat in Westerns. In fact, he had two different runs in Rome. The first, in the early ’60s, was highlighted by cheesy historical epics and even a a Vittorio De Sica film (The Last Judgment, co-starring fellow expat Ernest Borgnine). The second, in the mid-’70s, ran the gamut from Ursula Andress sex comedies (The Sensuous Nurse) to brutal cops-and-robbers flicks (Mr. Scarface). Ironically, he would finally be taken seriously and actually get that long-delayed Oscar for a Hollywood Western (well, as much as any movie starring Billy Crystal can be called a Western), City Slickers.
Who loves ya, baby? Not Hollywood so much in the long, dry years before Kojak. Yes, there was the Oscar nomination for 1962’s The Birdman of Alcatraz, but the chrome-domed Savalas was pretty much the definition of a utility player who came off the bench to steal a scene or two for most of his early career. Even his high-profile, ice-cold turn as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service became an instant footnote thanks to the one-and-done Bond George Lazenby. But Italy opened its arms wide for Aristotelis Savalas. Prior to scoring the career-altering, lollipop-sucking role of Lieutenant Theo Kojak in 1973, Savalas starred in a string of Italian paycheck roles, the best of which remains Mario Bava’s 1973 supernatural chiller Lisa and the Devil, co-starring Elke Sommer.
As you can probably tell by this point on the list, Italy wasn’t just a place to jump-start a career but also a place where you could pull out the defibrillator and attempt to resurrect one. Take the case of Farley Granger. The urbane star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) had, by the late ’60s, become tainted by his diminishing box office and not-so-quiet whispers about his homosexuality. He and his lover moved to Rome in the early ’70s. There, Granger became a mainstay in the giallo films of the era, playing inspectors (1972’s So Sweet, So Dead) and kinky, murderous intellectuals (1972’s Amuck!).
Just as they had with Telly Savalas, Italian moviegoers ate up Brynner’s macho cue-ball swagger. Brynner had been a star for decades (The Ten Commandments, The King and I, The Magnificent Seven) by the time he sampled the country’s spaghetti-Western offerings. And that star wasn’t so much tarnished as it was just in need of a little Euro-polishing. But give him this: Brynner dove in to his Italian period with rock-star flair. Battle of Neretva was a 1969 Italian-Serbian co-production, which became famous for being the most expensive Yugoslavian film of all time and also a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee. But it’s the following year’s Sabata sequel, Adios, Sabata!, that is a snapshot of real expat insanity. Taking over for Lee Van Cleef in the title role, Brynner plays the spaghetti-Western gunslinger like a butch Neil Diamond impersonator with fringed chaps and his shirt open just a little too low for any semblance of period accuracy. In fact, Brynner’s final film before his death would be 1976’s Death Rage — an Italian Mafia flick directed by Antonio Margheriti, another director who’s been on the receiving end of a Tarantino shout-out (actually, two: in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Inglourious Basterds).
Cotten will always be inextricably linked with Orson Welles. As young Hollywood upstarts, the two rode high together in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Third Man. But by the early ’70s, his leading-man days were long over and the Love Boat walk-ons awaited. Like Welles, he took gigs far below his talent. And that decade was spent toggling back and forth between guest spots on American TV shows and bigger (but less seen) roles in Italian schlock like 1971’s Lady Frankenstein (which is actually much better than it sounds), 1975’s Syndicate Sadists (mafioso bikers!), and 1979’s Island of the Fishmen. That last one is every ounce as bad as it sounds. In fact, Cotten’s Kane alter ego, scabrous theater critic Jedediah Leland, would have had a field day with it.