THE EARLY YEARS
Rossano Brazzi was born September 18, 1916 to Adelmo Brazzi and Maria Ghedini Brazzi, in Bologna, Italy. Rossano’s niece, María Lidia Fiorentini, recalls what she was told of that early history: “They moved from Bologna to Florence when Rossano was four or five, and a younger brother Oscar two years younger. Still in Bologna and during World War I, grandmother gave birth to four children. This happened as a result of quick, difficult, though productive, home leaves grandfather took from the army. Unfortunately, the first baby boy died during childbirth and the second, a baby girl called Mortella, died when she was only seventeen months old. When Rossano was born in 1916, my grandmother, who was still very young, was obsessed by the idea something bad would happen to her son and protected him to the point of breast-feeding him until he was nearly two! My mother also told [me] that before the end of World War I, grandmother heard loud knocks on the door. There were soldiers asking if there were any young men in the house to be recruited. Grandmother nodded, showed them into the house and then into the bathroom where Rossano, a toddler was sitting on his potty.”
Evidently, this eldest living child was much protected and doted on, from a very early age, and no doubt in this sheltered environment, developed a fondness for being the center of attention. “I was a ham since I was five years old”, he says. At that age, his specialty was reciting poetry to his father’s friends when they dropped in of an evening.
“My mother was the only child born in Florence, where my grandparents had a shoe shop in front of the Palazzo Pitti (Grandmother designed the shoes).”, recounts María Lidia. Rossano, Oscar, and Franca, were brought up in at least modest affluence. When still not yet in his teens, Rossano first tasted the heady wine of ovation in a school operetta – “I was the lead, of course” – which proved so successful that, instead of the contemplated two days’ run in a local theater, toured around the countryside for nearly three months. “I was singing and I was acting”, Brazzi says, “and I remember I was taking this very serious.” All through school indeed, and on into his years at the university in Florence, he devoted a large part of his extracurricular energy to theatricals.”
His earliest biography, written by Myriam Peverelli Zeppegno in 1941, recalled that his first childhood sweetheart was another young actress, apparently playing the part of some shrubbery, in that same “school operetta”, a children’s production of “I principini di Pam-Pam”(“The Little Princes of Pam-Pam”), who was apparently quite taken with him, in his role as the noble young prince. The parents of the two youngsters (she was approximately 10 years of age, to his 12), quickly separated them and it wasn’t until the age of 16 that he ventured into love’s arena for another round, this time with a schoolmate named Ida, with whom he shared his first kiss, in the light of a brilliant and colorful Florentine sunset. He was quickly talked out of running off with Ida and rushing headlong into marriage – his first impulse – by his mother, and before long she, too, was removed from his life by her parents, who moved away from the city with Ida in tow … though it is not clear whether or not her love for the “ardent and passionate” young Rossano Brazzi had anything to do with their decision.
“During this period of time, he grew to dislike the Fascist government and its policies. His father had strongly resisted formation of the Fascist party during its earlier days and was constantly under surveillance by party leaders. The Brazzi family was threatened on several occasions.” María Lidia describes her grandfather: “Though he did not receive much formal instruction, he read a lot, loved opera and knew all the lyrics by heart. He had a happy sort of disposition and was very, very handsome too. Mother described him as an open-minded person, respectful of other people’s thoughts, religions and races. She often used the word ‘cosmopolitan’ when talking of him though I don’t think he ever travelled abroad.” Once, according to David O. Selznick, “Fascist soldiers, unable to locate Rossano’s father, murdered two of his cousins for allegedly ‘concealing’ him”, but María Lidia does not recall hearing this story. She does, however, remember another one: “Mother, who was a teenager during World War II, used to tell me that many of their neighbours in Florence, hard-working, innocent, good people, were all of a sudden being taken away to concentration camps. Mussolini was never mentioned at the house, probably as a measure to oppose him in contrast to all the propaganda that went on in the streets. The only exam mother ever failed in school, was when she was asked to write an essay on Mussolini. She was unable to write more than three lines. The house in Florence was bombarded and they had to move to a close friend’s house, Nello Carapelli, (who was) Rossano’s first theatre ‘maestro’and also Carlo’s godfather.”
Other biographical sources also state that both of his parents were murdered by Mussolini’s Fascists. In fact, his father died from a stroke he incurred while swimming and his mother died later, of cancer. Nonetheless, his family suffered tremendously under Mussolini’s Fascist government. María Lidia also recalls hearing the story that her grandfather had been badly beaten by Fascists, with the ominous promise that Rossano, who was already a famous actor at the time, would be next, and that his “pretty face would be left unsuitable for the movies.”
Photo of Rossano, Lidia, her mother and his mother, taken in 1955.
Photo of Lidia, Rossano, Rossano’s younger sister Franca and Franca’s son, Carlo, also in 1955.
But as a young boy, Rossano felt this resentment only peripherally, and spent most of his time involved in sports of one sort or another: boxing, soccer, swimming, tennis and golf. He became extremely proficient at soccer, and in college played with the professional City of Florence soccer team as “porta” (goalkeeper), playing with the squad for two seasons. At college he also attracted attention as an amateur boxer in the middleweight (70 kilogram) division and was billed for professional matches in Florence and Rome – – “Not because I was so good”, he says, “but mainly because I was very strong and the other people, they were very lousy.” “I made a bet with my friends that I would become Italy’s champion. When I win the title, I say, “Thank you very much — good-bye.” I didn’t want to be a fighter”. The real story behind his departure from boxing may have been a little more dramatic. From Selznick: “His first match was a 6-round victory by decision. His second was also a victory, but ended in near-tragedy and caused him to quit the ring. Matched against a former schoolboy acquaintance named Mario Tinelli, Brazzi staggered his opponent midway in Round 1 with a left hook to the body. Tinelli doubled up, exposing his jaw and Brazzi cooled him with a right uppercut. Tinelli was completely unconscious, fell through the ropes and struck his head on a ringside seat. The concussion resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage. When word was received that Tinelli would recover, Brazzi packed his gloves in the bottom drawer and forsook boxing forever. “In later years, as a movie actor, he nevertheless continued to pursue other athletic hobbies. One of these was an unusual aptitude for arm-wrestling. He even bested Primo Carnera, the giant Italian heavyweight, at the sport. During lunch hour on a Scalera picture, Brazzi and some fellow actors were testing their strength in the studio dining room. Carnera was appearing in another picture at the same studio and was badgered into arm-wrestling with Brazzi. Brazzi agreed and, to the giant’s discomfiture, won hands down.”
COLLEGE YEARS: DRAMA
But the seeds of his dramatic career “had its beginnings one fall evening in 1934, when he was a first year law student at San Marco University in Florence. Already 17, he had no thought of pursuing anything except a law career, when he became friendly with several students who were active in the University’s amateur theater. One back-stage visit led to another. His friends persuaded him to try out for a part. He did, and got it. Still not considering drama seriously as a career, he continued dramatics as a hobby during his second year. This time he won an important role: the part of the prodigal son in Siro Angeli’s “La Casa” — and the damage was done. From there on he actively wanted the stage and screen as a career.
“In 1937, after he received his degree, his father sent him to serve an apprenticeship with an older lawyer in Rome. Rossano was delighted – although not, perhaps, for just the reason his father would have preferred: Rome was the country’s theatrical center. During the next two years the fledgling attorney spent a small part of his time preparing briefs (his first court case – which he won – was defending a woman accused of stealing a chicken), and a far greater part rehearsing stage productions with a repertory company he had joined.” The repertory company was led by the famous stage actresses, Irma and Emma Gramatica.
“For the audition, Brazzi met Emma Gramatica at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome in 1938. It was his first exposure to big-time operations, and he was admittedly nervous. Once ushered into the room with Gramatica, however, he was again confident and poised. “I knew somehow that I had the dramatic talent she was seeking”, he says. Gramatica asked Brazzi if he knew any special piece from memory. He did indeed — a scene from one of Gramatica’s favorite plays, “La Nemica” (The Enemy) by Dario Nicodemi. This play concerned a triangle between a mother and two sons, one of whom discovers that he is not the son of his nominal father, but the result of his mother’s illicit affair with another man. As the disillusioned son, Brazzi was so effective that Gramatica hired him on the spot. With the Gramaticas, Brazzi played engagements throughout Italy for 6 months. When the company played Somerset Maugham’s “The Sacred Flame” in Rome, the cast was invited to a post-performance party at the home of the Italian motion picture producer, Michele Scalera. Scalera, impressed by Brazzi’s work as the paralytic son in the Maugham play, took him aside at the party and offered a screen test in his forthcoming “Dialogues of Socrates” (eventually released as ‘The Trial and Death of Socrates’).
(For more information on his earlier theater and film career, please see Rossano Brazzi: Complete Actor, © 1942 by Pietro Osso, Italy ).
“And now for the first time he realized that he must make a choice that would determine the course of his entire future. He wasn’t at all sure that he really wanted to devote his life to acting. “I was trained, you know, to be a serious person,” he says, meaning a lawyer, “and I knew already a little bit how phony it is, how fragile — all the life of an actor.” Also, he was now engaged to be married to a former schoolmate at the university, Lidia Bertolini, and the choice no longer involved himself alone. It was a decision not lightly to be undertaken, and Brazzi made it on a very practical basis. When he calculated that it would take him ten years as a lawyer to make as much money as he was now offered for one year in pictures, the choice seemed less difficult.”
WORLD WAR II AND THE ITALIAN RESISTANCE
Brazzi’s resistance to the Fascist dictatorship was passive rather than active in the earlier years of Mussolini’s regime. Although he had no love for the Fascists, he found that by not revealing his political views to anyone, he was able to pursue his career as an actor without much interference. By the time the situation had worsened into total war, Brazzi had already established himself as a top actor, and top actors were being deferred from the draft on the basis that good motion picture entertainment was needed for national morale. Consequently, he escaped service in the Italian army, except for a token period of 30 days service in 1941. Up until this point, Brazzi says, the pictures he was making were commercially produced for profit and were not propaganda. In 1942, however, the Germans and the Italian government asked him to move to Milan to make propaganda pictures under government sponsorship. He refused, feigning illness, and abandoned his film career for the duration. Earlier, he had been asked by the resistance forces if he would help obtain food for those they had managed to hide from the SS executioners. Food throughout the country was scarce, and many in the Underground were close to starvation. “Probably few men in Italy were better equipped to help than Brazzi. For one thing, he had money – and food could still be bought on the black market. For another, he could get some assistance through the Vatican; as nephew of the Archbishop of Bari – later Marcello Cardinal Mimmi of Naples – Brazzi was a Papal Guard. He was able to capitalize upon his knowledge of the Cinecitta movie studio, which had been converted into a concentration camp. Night after night he helped smuggle out three or four inmates, many of them American, British and French prisoners of war. All together, it was estimated, Brazzi and his resistance group helped to smuggle around 5,000 people away from certain death. Seven days before the liberation of Rome, Brazzi was arrested by the German SS, and was turned over to the Italian authorities. Someone had apparently betrayed him, and he was never able to ascertain who his enemy was. Nonetheless, he found himself facing the strong probability of immediate execution. “I made a little bit of acting,” he said later, “I said, “You know, I been helping everybody – could have been Fascist, could have been anybody.” Because we are arrived to a certain point now that Italy is such in a mess, and I think we really forgot that, after all, we are here all Italians and we are doing this one against the other.” Whether his interrogator was impressed by Brazzi’s eloquence or merely mindful of the Allies near approach, he ordered Brazzi jailed rather than shot. A week later, Brazzi’s guards vanished and he walked out free.” (He was later decorated for his bravery by President Eisenhower).”
Want to read more on the Italian Resistance during World War II? Click here.
“THE WORST YEAR OF MY LIFE”
When the war ended, filmmaking began to move in a new direction: the stark, gritty neo-realistic style. Rossano’s reputation as an actor had been more associated with swashbuckling adventures and romances. Thus, when American producer David O. Selznick offered him the chance to make films in America, he was willing to take this next step in his career. He diligently studied the new language en route to Los Angeles … and embarked upon what he would later call, “the worst year of my life.” “He could read almost no English at the time and, “I tell you,” he says, “I was not able to understand the script. I was able to speak, you know, simple things and to study by heart, but I didn’t know what was going on in the script, you know. I thought it was a romantic part.” His disabusement came with the first application of make-up — whiskers, eyeglasses, and a false belly. Brazzi was appalled. “I said, you know, “I am Rossano Brazzi – from Selznick.’ and I thought they made a mistake, that they took me for somebody else.” Actually, Selznick says, he thought the part a great opportunity for Brazzi. In the first place, it was a role in which Paul Lukas had scored a considerable success in the original film production starring Katharine Hepburn. In the second, it was the only work the producer had succeeded in landing for his discovery. Unfortunately, according to Selznick, “Brazzi’s accent was extraordinarily bad – I am afraid he sounded like a Neapolitan comedian. The result was that the producer’s efforts to lend Brazzi out to other studios had met with no success whatever until he persuaded LeRoy to use the actor in Little Women. In any case, Brazzi’s recollection of the role is understandable: the critics were almost unanimous in finding his performance stiff, humorless and incredible. After this the actor could not get back to Italy fast enough. As he recalls it, Selznick tried to prevent his leaving, and there was a bit of a row, but the producer finally had to give in. “Because I was allergic to English,” Brazzi explains. “I could not speak the language anymore. And when an actor, you know, wants to do these kind of things [i.e., break a contract], he can do it.” Selznick remembers the matter somewhat differently. “It is a complete and unadulterated falsehood that I ever had the slightest altercation with Brazzi,” he says, “The plain facts of the matter are that, in consequence of my going out of production, and in consequence of his difficulty in overcoming his accent, I decided not to pick up my option.” Brazzi fled back to Italy, his ego smarting. But the failure in America was only a prelude to what his personal managers call his “destruction as a star in Italy.” Returning to the same sort of role in which he had once been so successful – a retreat which no psychologist would have trouble explaining – Brazzi succeeded only in quenching the embers of his popularity.”
“I went back to the stage where I had begun my career. I still feel more sure about the theater than pictures.” he said, simply. In a desperate attempt to stem the ebbing tide (of his popularity) he had then tried his hand at producing. This turned out to be the greatest disaster of his life. Generous and trusting by nature, Brazzi has never been able to say “No”, to anyone — “If my husband were a woman,” his wife says, “he would always be pregnant” – and he casually delegated authority to people with no more business sense than himself – which is to say, none. The result was that he wound up his career as a producer without a lira to his name. Worse, he discovered that he owed various creditors the equivalent of over $200,000. Later, he could pay off such an amount with the income from a single picture, but at the time, his price had dwindled to a little over $10,000. With no other means of settling accounts, he began a frantic and self-defeating round of borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest, first to pay the debts from his producing venture and then, still at higher rates, to satisfy the demands of the previous moneylenders. Simultaneously, in a feverish effort to make money, he appeared in one hastily produced picture after another, with the predictable result that the remnants of his popularity quickly disintegrated. Even more damaging for a man who has nothing to sell but himself was the growth in Brazzi’s once-robust ego of a malignant inferiority complex.
Then, just as the bitter waters of despair were closing over him for what might well have been the last time, he was thrown a lifeline from the very place he blamed most for his predicament – Hollywood. With a courage supported by nothing more tangible than faith and friendship, Jean Negulesco, a director Brazzi had met in this country on his first visit, offered him a part in a forthcoming picture.
Negulesco later recalled how this came about:
“Sometime in 1949, Arthur Hornblow, an M-G-M producer, calls: “Roberto Rossellini will be at the studio at ten to show a short film with Magnani. He wants to meet you.”
“I’ll be there.”
… Lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel with the Italian consul, [and] Rossano Brazzi, Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman … I’m listening to the trials and tribulations of the other Latin lover, Rossano, about his first Hollywood film, Little Women, and his “Apollo” body insulted by a soft pillow tied to his belly to make him look his part – a middle-aged professor. “That’s Hollywood, Rossano. The suave Charles Boyer’s first part was a Gaelic chauffeur to Gable and Turner’s limousine.”
“I know, but a pillow?”
“If ever I have the right part for you, Rossano, it’s yours.” (I kept my promise. Three years later he played the romantic Italian in Three Coins in the Fountain).”
Things I Did … and Things I Think I Did, by Jean Negulesco, Linden Press, Simon & Schuster, New York 1984
Negulesco risked his reputation in doing so: the producers had specifically asked him to get another Italian actor for the part – Vittorio Gassman. Negulesco took it upon himself to say that Gassman wasn’t free, wouldn’t be for years. On that basis, the studio accepted Brazzi. “There are six roles,” Negulesco told the actor. “Don’t expect anything important.” But Brazzi was overjoyed. The picture was 3 Coins in the Fountain, released in 1954, and Brazzi, as the love-smitten young Italian, played the third male lead, behind Clifton Webb and Louis Jourdan. In truth the part was small, but the picture did well and it introduced Brazzi to the American public as an attractive new romantic personality.”
Rossano signing an autograph for a young Italian fan in Rome, 1955.
THE LATIN LOVER
In later years, with 20/20 hindsight, Rossano would comment that the biggest mistake of his career was not his first trip to Hollywood (although he certainly thought so at the time), but rather his early willingness to accept the title of heir to the throne of Rudolph Valentino, to step into the role of a “Latin Lover.”
The very concept of the “Latin Lover” was new, cinematically, and Rossano had only one example ahead of him: Rudolph Valentino. He would be the first Italian actor since Valentino to achieve the same global popularity, the same passion from his admirers, the same frenzied attention from a global press corps. The problem was that Valentino, who died at the height of his success, had never had the opportunity to experience the downside of this sort of role: that is, that he would be forever struggling to extricate himself from the label. Latino and Italian actors, now, seeing a similar pattern in their own careers, have not Valentino but Rossano Brazzi to thank for the trailblazing he provided in a then murky and unknown territory.
But the possibility that it might seriously undermine him later was not even remotely evident in the early 1950’s: Rossano had, after all, been propelled from near oblivion into international fame and worldwide adoration by adopting the role, and had gone from owing creditors $200,000 in a failed attempt to salvage his career, to receiving hundreds of thousands of fan letters from admirers clamoring for more of him. “You want Brazzi like this?” he asked at the time, meaning in the role of a romantic personality, “Then I give you Brazzi like this.” And he did. And no one has ever questioned the fact that he was darned good at it. Due in part to his appearance, in part to his genuinely heartfelt affection for women, but mostly due to his formidable ability to throw himself wholeheartedly into any role he played, he quickly propelled himself into one of the most memorable and believable screen lovers of the 1950’s. Perhaps even too believable. The irony of his success? That Brazzi found himself consistently relegated to the category of “matinee idol”, or “Latin lover” by those who failed to, or were unwilling to, look past the public hysteria and find the actor and the man behind the “heartthrob” image. That, even today, he is sometimes dismissed by unschooled critics as a “lightweight”, rather than seen as an actor whose deft and skillful screen portrayals convinced a world that he was the Greatest Lover Since Valentino.
His success in these roles was reflected in the passionate reaction of a public who truly believed him: he received at least 5,000 love letters a day from adoring admirers. Actress Maria Felix once offered his wife $2 million dollars if he would “sell” him to her. A fan had a limousine delivered to the door of his New York Hotel with directions to her home … in Chicago. A group of women in Japan raised money to bring him to Japan, all expenses paid, with only the proviso that he spend a night at each one of their homes. He was one of the select few men who could claim the dubious distinction of having his clothes ripped off by screaming mobs of women on two continents. Gossip columnists spent an inordinate amount of ink speculating on his relationships with his female co-stars and the possibility than an illicit relationship was afoot. The overwhelming and sometimes frightening levels of passion that many fans would feel for him would continue throughout his life. The week after his death in 1994, The Hollywood Reporter, in a display of appallingly bad taste, ran a story about a woman claiming to be the mother of his illegitimate son and secretly married to him … complete with a 1954 “marriage license”. Unfortunately for their credibility, the Reporter forgot to check divorce laws in Italy before they ran the story (divorce wasn’t legal until 1974) — and wound up with a journalistic black eye and egg on their faces, just another victim of a fan’s very sad obsession with Rossano Brazzi.
It appears that, contrary to the public image, Brazzi was actually a very private man, who remained very happily married to the same woman for 41 years until her death in 1981 – at first glance an unlikely candidate for the wife of a ‘dashingly handsome’ movie star (except to those who knew her): Lidia Brazzi, 5’3″ to her husband’s 5’10”, and a reported 200 lbs., had been variously described as bubbly, joyful, irrepressible, charming, witty, fun, intelligent, a “jovial, blue-eyed bundle of energy and charm”, “the solid foundation on which Rossano has built his life.” “No one can remain around her, and remain sad.” Rossano never spoke about his wife in anything but the most glowing of terms:
“No one can hold the little finger of my Lidia.”
“I love Lidia and she understands me.”
“She is my sister, my mother, my best friend, my wife.”
“Of all the women I have met, both on screen and off, I still think my wife is the most interesting.”
“I’ve been married for fifteen years and every year it seems I love my wife more.”
He met Lidia while they were both students at San Marco University, Rossano in law, Lidia in literature. Lidia was a member of an aristocratic Florentine family, but their first glimpse of each other was at a drama school they were both attending. One day in class, Lidia’s girlfriend nudged her and whispered, “There’s Brazzi. Isn’t he handsome?” Lidia recalled later that she wasn’t at all impressed. Later, she saw him in a school play and thought he did a fine job. She went backstage and told him so. They didn’t meet again until several weeks later. Lidia was traveling by train to a village near Florence where one of the school plays was to be presented. Her girlfriend pointed to Rossano who was standing in the corridor, watching Lidia intently. Lidia remembers that he wore a high-necked Russian blouse and looked very dashing, but pretending not to be interested, she commented to her friend, “This one has a stupid face.” She saw Rossano again at the hotel where the school troupe was staying. He was frantically going through his suitcase looking for a shirt. “He looked so miserable and the suitcase was in such a mess,” Lidia remembered. “His mother hadn’t had time to pack it for him, and he had done it himself. We began to talk, and we talked the rest of the evening.” “We must get married,” Rossano said almost immediately. Lidia was engaged at the time, but she broke it off. They went together for two years in spite of constant family opposition, before they decided to go off to Rome and get married. “You can change your mind,” Lidia used to tell Rossano at regular intervals, up until the day of their wedding. “It’s not too late. You might be sorry one day.” “I will never regret it.” Rossano said at the time, and he meant it. They married without parental consent. No one from their families came to that first wedding ceremony in Rome, and the young couple began their married life in the lonely gloom of parental disapproval. “My wife’s family, who are titled, first objected to me because I didn’t come from nobility,” explains Rossano, “They thought Lidia should have married the stuffy lawyer she was engaged to before I came along.” “Rossano’s family thought an early marriage might hurt his career. Besides, everyone thought we were both too young and headstrong,” is Lidia Brazzi’s explanation. Fifteen years after this inauspicious beginning, on the anniversary of their marriage in 1955, they renewed their vows at the San Iocopini Church in Florence. Both sides of the family attended. The Pope himself sent them a special benediction.”
FIGHTING THE IMAGE
If he was unaware of the potential pitfalls of his image in the 1950’s, they certainly became clear to him within the next decade. He went through a period where, if he wasn’t interested in resurrecting (again) the role of the Latin lover, he had difficulty working in Hollywood at all. In fact, many of his most willingly comedic performances were those in which he poked fun at his own image: as the smooth, suave and utterly silly Carlos Matabosch in The Bobo, in his brief but very funny role as Giorgio in Woman Times Seven and as himself, recreating one of those “screaming mob” moments in Mondo Cane. He regularly made mention of the “ridiculousness” of his position, and repeatedly insisted, “I am not the Latin lover people think I am.” No one listened. By 1962, in Rome Adventure, he could perform the character of Roberto Orlandi with his eyes closed. He was utterly bored with the character type, but even then, would not allow boredom to lead to a bad performance. Even in bleary-eyed boredom, no one could portray a screen lover with the style and finesse that he did, and he even managed to improve on it.
But this period of time, as frustrating as it must have been for him, has become a sheer delight for fans of “Rossano Brazzi the actor” (as opposed to “Rossano Brazzi the Latin Lover”), because this was the period of time where he began to tear himself free of the mold with a violent determination. The late sixties and early seventies found him choosing some of the most unusual, uncharacteristic projects in his life, from the gleefully cartoonish Phineas T. Prune in The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (which he also directed) to the nerdy intellectual complete with the tortoise shell glasses falling down his nose in Italy’s La ragazza di bersagliere, the sadistic and brutal Major Bernadelli in Heroes Die Hard, to the gloomy, insane Dr. Frankenstein in Il castillo di paura. His refusal to be typecast into characters known for their romantic gallantry and heroism found its way into criminals, sexual deviants, rapists, Mafia dons. And yes – the occasional lover. To the end of his career, he was still the actor Hollywood thought of, when they needed a Latin lover. Or a Count. Or a dignified, refined, international aristocrat. He was still Rossano Brazzi.
Following the success of Il natale che quasi non fu, he moved into directing more seriously. His brother Oscar, who had previously been described only as an “exporter”, now joined him as both as a director, and executive producer on many of these films and eventually branched out on his own. A nephew, Fabrizio (Oscar’s son), contributed to the new “family business” with a screenplay for at least one film, as Rossano struggled to find films in which he could expand creatively, and, failing that, to make his own.
This is the period of time about which we know the least, as far as his personal life is concerned: he was less likely to be interviewed in the 70’s and 80’s than he was in the 50’s and 60’s.
ILSE FISCHER BRAZZI
Lidia Brazzi died from cancer of the liver in 1981. Although he had the time to somewhat prepare himself emotionally for her loss, it still devastated him, to the degree that he described to biographer and friend Fulco Scarpellini living through a period of time where he simply felt himself unable to continue. Strangely, it was through a prophetic dream that he was able to pull himself out of his depression.
He had experienced such dreams before.
«Everything began in 1934» – Rossano told Scarpellini – «I was seventeen years old, in high school in Florence and I lived in the zone of St. Jacopino, in the ancient building “Margherita”. It was really in that period that I knew Maria De Bernardis – she was sixteen years old.» Despite her youth, she seemed to have a greater degree of maturity than her contemporaries.
«She led me to understand that she enjoyed my presence. She asked me, also, to go out with her. This friendship lasted for a year or so. Subsequently, I graduated in law and, as I already said, I moved to the capital city. In Rome I studied and spent much time in the office of a known lawyer, a friend of my father’s, and began to practice law.
Meanwhile I had lost contact with Maria. One night, however, I experienced an odd event that changed my life.
I had a strange dream. I saw Maria rushing towards me and shouting with joy: «There are beautiful and new things in store for for you!». The following day when I came in the office, nothing was unusual. But remembering the dream, I tried to contact Maria. I succeeded in talking to her sister. She came to see me, and first I asked about Maria and she told me: «Maria isn’t here anymore; she became sick with leukemia and she left us a few months ago.»
I felt a shiver go through me, and a great pain. I added: «When did this happen?» I learned that Maria had disappeared only a few days before she appeared me in my dream. Then her sister added: «I need to deliver this to you from Maria. A small parcel of paper in which she had wrapped a silver ring».
Rossano Brazzi placed the ring on the little finger of his left hand and wore the ring, without ever removing it, up through the day of December 23rd 1994, when the physicians of a Roman clinic, where he had been admitted for a serious viral illness, removed it from his finger. The following day (24 December) he went to sleep forever.
Another dream of Maria de Bernardis preceeded Lydia’s death.
Rossano responded to me: «Yes, other times I have dreamed of her and listened to her – there have been a lot of good, kind dreams». He continued: «In 1981, I was in America to finish a film. My wife Lydia was in Rome. One night I dreamed of Maria: it was sad and uneasy. That dream upset me. I immediately called my wife by telephone, which reassured me that all was well.
Some days after I returned to Italy I found Lydia suffering a little bit. It suggested liver troubles. I brought her to an expert and they performed some tests; they diagnosed pancreatic cancer in an advanced state.
Then my wife was sheltered in a clinic. The treatment, however, didn’t prove effective. Three months later, in fact, she left me forever». He continued: «At that point I didn’t feel like living anymore, and didn’t succeed in bearing that difficult moment well».
He continued: «One night Maria came to me again in a dream. She has helped me a great deal. She was very beautifully dressed with a wedding dress, illuminating me. When I reawakened, the anguish that had characterized my sad and boring days had faded away suddenly. It was then that my story of love was born with Ilse, my second wife, who I married in 1984. She had been near, and I held her in esteem for her human and professional qualities. I had realized since I first met her (when she was only twenty-four) that she was infatuated with me, but I didn’t think that she loved me in silence for so many years». He continued: «It had been Maria perhaps, with that dream in which she appeared to me with the wedding dress, who pointed out Ilse to me».
It took four years before he would marry a second time, this time to Ilse Fischer, who had been born in Germany but had been living in Rome since 1954. Her story was a memorable story of love and patience and devotion. She first laid eyes on Rossano in the movie, Three Coins in the Fountain in 1952, when she was a 17-year old teenager in Germany (20 years younger). At the time, she had been training as a tennis player — she’s a very skilled tennis player, even today. She looked at Rossano on the screen, turned to her mother right in the middle of the movie theater, and said, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” As you might suspect, her mother was immediately convinced that her daughter had completely lost her mind.
But, Ilse held firm. Against all family opposition, the moment she turned 18 and was a legal adult, she abandoned her horrified family, her tennis and her future, packed up and moved to Rome to fulfill her destiny of marrying Rossano Brazzi. Of course, she said, she was so sure she was destined to marry Rossano Brazzi, it never even occurred to her that he might already be married, so you can imagine her dismay and confusion when she learned about Lydia. However, since the idea of even having a crush on a married man was against her religion, she then realized that perhaps she’d mis-read her “destiny”, and perhaps was instead destined to be alone for the remainder of her life. She moved on and began living her life in Rome, working as a secretary, an actress in a few films and other assorted jobs. One of her small roles was in “Four Fables of Love”, and this was the first time she actually met Rossano in person – one handshake, one “nice to meet you” sort of thing, but after that he recognized her on the street, and spoke to her whenever their paths crossed. When Lidia died in 1981, Ilse went to offer him her condolences as a friend – he was lost and devastated and desolate at the time, she said – and little by little, their acquaintance became a friendship, and then a romance, and he asked her to marry him in 1984. A Roman magazine, doing an article on his second marriage, made quite a fuss over the fact that Ilse had waited for the man she loved for 32 years!
From all accounts, this second marriage was a happy one for him as well. His niece, María Lidia Fiorentini, recalls, “[The] last time I talked to Rossano on the phone, was on Christmas Eve 1993, exactly one year before he passed away and on that occasion he told me how happy the past years with Ilse had been. He was a man very grateful to life.”
THE FIVE YEAR PERIOD FROM 1983-1988
Still, his second marriage was immediately put under extreme duress when in 1984, he underwent a very public and painful encounter with the Italian judicial system: he was arrested and then indicted – and later fully acquitted – on the charge of being a member of an international ring (with a group of 100 other defendants), conspiring to sell arms and weapons for drugs. The trial itself would not begin until 1986, in Venezia-Mestre, which placed his life and career under a dark cloud of suspicion and uncertainty for two years, while he awaited the outcome.
Rossano had probably been referring to incidents like these when he described his state of mind after Lidia’s death: «At that point I didn’t feel like living anymore, and didn’t succeed in bearing that difficult moment well». She had literally been one of the strongest guiding forces in his life; Lidia may have been charming, and kind and loved by everyone who knew her, but she was not naive. One of her greatest gifts, as far as Rossano was concerned, was her ability to maneuver him through the pitfalls of his own success: the people who gathered around him, dazzled by his success, his fame and his wealth, but who did not have his best interests at heart. While Rossano tended to be more trusting; Lidia was as sharp as a tack. If she sensed that an aquaintance might hurt her husband, they were sent packing.
Without Lidia, Rossano initially seems to have foundered like a rudderless vessel, and it took him quite a while before he could begin to make the distinctions and choices in his personal life and in his set of personal aquaintances that Lidia could make for him, quite effortlessly. The results of his poor decisions nearly upended him, quite quickly. She died in 1981; by 1983 he was already stunned at the consequences of some of his choices in acquaintances.
Here in America, news coverage was very limited: we knew he’d been arrested and indicted in November of 1984, and we knew he’d been acquitted of all charges in 1988. In Italy, however, the news coverage was extensive. Rossano was asked about the introduction of an unnamed “Mr. X” (the arms buyer) and “Mr. Y” (the drug buyer), both of whom were believed to have operated in Tuscany. Rossano had a villa in Tuscany, and was certainly well-known both as a public figure and as a resident … but that doesn’t seem to be the reason behind his being arrested as a “connective or causative link” — which, in the absence of any recorded testimony in the pages of the local press — could have meant anything. It appears that his name had come to the attention of the Italian authorities when the home of an Italian freemason named Lucio Gelli was searched. We are putting together a historical background on the P2 Lodge and the history of Freemasonry, both in Italy and elsewhere; check back here periodically for further information.
Rossano was also asked about the activities of right-wing political groups operating in Tuscany (referred to as “cellule nere” in Italian), one of which apparently attempted, but did not succeed, in bombing a train in the area. Based on the information provided by Il Gazzettino, he testified at two trials (one in Venice-Mestre, and one in Florence). His testimony required a relatively limited amount of his time – after which he had to wait 3 months to be acquitted – and his portion of the trial itself was even considered rather amusing. The amusement came in the form of his attorney, who delivered a protest of such dramatic indignation and outrage on behalf of his client that he reduced the entire court to laughter. His rebuttal of the charges, spiced with colorful and exuberant Italian insults, was so entertaining that it was still being re-created for a popular Italian television program, “A Day In Court”, many years later.
But, as he expected to be, Rossano was fully acquitted of all charges and went back to work. It was his unwavering conviction that his familiarity with two Tuscan neighbors was less important than his famous name in bringing the attention of the international press to the prosecutor’s case. “He needed attention, and I was well-known, associated with an opposing political party”, he said privately, and angrily. “It was all due to politics, and I was the victim.”
Indeed, the national and international press used his name for their headlines of the mass arrest, and even one American gossip columnist weighed in with her brand of judicial verdict: Liz Smith, in her column, repeated a “Dynasty” casting rumor she’d overheard — that Rossano was being considered for an episode of the popular primetime drama to be filmed in Rome — and then proceeded to blame Rossano himself for starting the rumor in an effort to direct attention away from his legal difficulties. (Obviously, not quite grasping that he might have had more important and weighty issues on his mind at the time.) Reportedly, he found it very difficult to forgive those friends and co-workers who had tried and convicted him before trial, and who reappeared only after the acquittal.
Another poor choice landed him as the subject of ridicule and a 60 Minutes investigation. Another one of his acquaintances had talked him into being a spokesman for a project to create a new “country”, complete with peerage, royalty and a new breed of knights. He liked the idea, but never realized that this was also a money-laundering scam with ties to a former P2 member. He did, thankfully, have the good sense to escape from the project before being pulled too far into it, but not before made to look extremely silly.
He continued to work on films throughout this period of time. Work helped to re-focus his scattered heart and emotions; a new marriage to a woman who adored him was a blessing. That he was able to re-ground and center himself, after the death of the woman he’d depended upon so fiercely for so many years, speaks volumes about his will and determination.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he once confessed, “if it was all today, I would have plastic surgery. I would have made my face as I wanted it, with all I felt inside, because I never felt myself in the role of the Latin lover.” Fortunately, he never did take that measure, and it’s well that he didn’t. Time has a way of changing perspective.
“The camera is able to look deeply inside and see an inner process, if someone has one,” said director Edward Zwick (Glory) recently, and the truth of that is perhaps the reason for a now growing recognition of all that Rossano Brazzi accomplished in his long and varied career. What we’ve found is an extraordinarily talented actor and director with at least 230 films and television appearances to his credit, decades of respected stage work, and a passion for his craft and his art, which continues to enchant and captivate first-time viewers, even today. We’ve found an actor unafraid to take chances, who would completely lose himself in roles that other Hollywood actors were too afraid to take (the emotionally unstable Edmund Kean in Kean when he was only twenty-four years old, the impotent Count Torlato-Favrini in The Barefoot Contessa and his over-the-top portrayal of the spiritually destroyed Paul Bonnard in Legend of the Lost); a man who repeatedly sculpted himself physically into the characters he played, rather than forcing a character to sculpt itself to him. We’ve discovered a “survivor” who was unafraid to start over again from ground level, not once but several times in his career; a man who had survived war, imprisonment and near execution by the German SS, bankruptcy, misjudgments, miscastings, betrayals, bad movies, the devastating death of Lidia Brazzi and, of course, the ever-changing whims of a movie-going audience on two continents. Ultimately, it turns out that, even without the plastic surgery, the camera’s eye did capture a face that reflected the full range of human experience: from the blackest of rage to the coldest of callousness, from the silliest impishness to the profoundest ecstasy. With the advantage of that all-important perspective, we’ve learned that the “Latin lover” he was asked to play so often — and which he played so memorably and with such conviction — really reflected only a small facet of his range and depth.
Rossano Brazzi died on December 24, 1994 in a Rome hospital, after succumbing to “a virus that affected his nervous system”. He was 78. It was a surprise to no one that he was working on a movie at the time.
1. “Rossano Brazzi: His Life and Films”, © 1941 by Myriam Peverelli Zeppegno, Milano, Italy
2. “Rossano Brazzi: Complete Actor”, © 1942 by Pietro Osso, Italy.
3. Memorandum from David O. Selznick to studio heads, 1949
4. “Don’t Talk Love – Take Love!”, by Rossano Brazzi, Motion Picture Magazine, October 1955
5. “He Leaves His Heart in Rome”, by Maria Russo, source and exact date unknown, 1955
6. Interview with Hedda Hopper, Sunday, 2/17/57
7. The Star Weekly Magazine, “How To Hold On To Your Husband”, by Lloyd Shearer, 12/7/57, interview
with Lidia Brazzi.
8. Cue Magazine 12/14/57, “No Love? No Movies”, by Jesse Zunzer
9. Screen Stories, February 1958
10. Saturday Evening Post 1/31/59, “Rossano’s Revenge”, Screenland, January 1959
11. Screen Stories, May 1962
12. Celebrity Register
13. Current Biography (May 1961)
14. Heartthrobs: A Colorful Collection of the World’s Most Fascinating Men, Crescent Books, 1974
15. Panoramo Biografico degli Italiani d’oggi, date unknown
16. “Things I Did … and Things I Think I Did”, Jean Negulesco,© 1984 Linden Press, Simon & Schuster, New York
17. Variety Magazine, January 1995
18. Encyclopedia of European Cinema, Edited by Ginette Vincendeau, 1995, British Film Institute, released
in the US by Facts on File
19. Obituaries in the Performing Arts, Harris M. Lentz III © 1996, McFarland & Co., Inc.
20. Discussion with Ilse Fischer Brazzi, 1997.
21. Correspondence with María Lidia Fiorentini, 1998-2002.
22. Correspondence with Carlo Fiorentini, 1998-2002.
©Additional text by the Rossano Brazzi International Network, 1998-2002, all rights reserved
Created by the Rossano Brazzi International Network, Authorized representative of the Estate of Rossano Brazzi
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