Dino De Laurentiis was a prolific film producer with a film career that spanned more than six decades across every kind of movie imaginable. It is easy enough to list the litany of films that he produced; a body of work that is celebrated not only by his successes, but almost more so his failures.
De Laurentiis was the father of the international co-production and helped launch the directing career of Federico Fellini, but he’s also the man whose name will forever be attached to the disastrous 1976 remake of “King Kong” and the much maligned cinematic adaptation of “Dune,” which was directed by David Lynch (and also the only film that Lynch will not discuss in any detail). In this age of production by committee and trying to place the safe bet with formulaic scripts, De Laurentiis specialized in trying for the home run.
His film career began in his native Italy, where he enrolled in film school and supported himself with whatever job he could find on set. By the time he was in his early twenties, he already had a producer’s credit under his belt (“L’amore canta”), although World War II and a stint in the army briefly halted his career.
After the war, De Laurentiis returned to producing, eventually teaming up with Carlo Ponti, and the two worked on a string of movies throughout the 1950s. It was in 1957’s “Le notti di Cabiria” that he first teamed up with Fellini, helping the man who would go on to direct “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” establish his career. After his partnership with Ponti dissolved, De Laurentiis, who always had the eye for a film spectacle, oversaw the construction of a sprawling studio in Rome, called Dinocitta’. After that venture failed, due to his own business shortfalls and the Italian film industry’s problems, he sold the ill-fated complex to the government and moved his operation to the United States.
He continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s and executive produced the World War II epic “Battle of the Bulge” (1966), which starred Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and Robert Shaw (De Laurentiis received no credit). In 1968, he produced the bizarre sci-fi space flick “Barbarella,” the movie which turned Jane Fonda into a sex symbol almost overnight.
By the 1970s, De Laurentiis was well established in Hollywood and also used his international connections to merge film productions in the U.S. with other countries, especially his homeland. He kicked the decade off by producing the spaghetti western/heist film “A Man Called Sledge,” starring James Garner in the title role. This glorious mess (or cult classic, depending on whom you ask) was written and directed by Vic Morrow, and took advantage of Italian locations and the conventions of the spaghetti western, which had mostly disappeared by the end of the 1960s.
American hits like the sublime “Serpico” (1973), directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) were interspersed with Italian titles, but it may be “King Kong” which defined the decade, and quite possibly career, for De Laurentiis. With a then unheard of $25 million budget, it was to get the full 1970s disaster movie treatment. Several directors, including Roman Polanski and Sam Peckinpah, were offered the chance to direct, each turning De Laurentiis down. He settled on John Guillermin, who at that time was best known for directing “The Towering Inferno,” another special effects laden disaster film that starred Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.
Beset by problems from the beginning, the production team of De Laurentiis, his son Federico, and Christian Ferry had to figure out a realistic way to portray the giant ape. Carlo Rambaldi was given the task of creating a working, life sized mechanical Kong, which only gets about three minutes of screen time towards the end of the movie. This robotic Kong, at 40 feet high and more than 3 1/2 tons, and at a cost of $1.7 million, remains as the largest mechanical figure ever built for a movie.
Rambaldi also constructed two massive mechanical hydraulic hands that could scoop up female lead Jessica Lange. This, of course, was well before CGI, so most of the movement shots of Kong were done by the prerequisite man in an ape suit (make-up artist Rick Baker in this case) wreaking havoc on scaled down sets.
With a script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and a taut score by John Barry, “King Kong” is not a terrible movie, but it definitely has the feel of an overly ambitious production that ultimately falls flat. The movie was unveiled with much hype; it was a modern spin on the tale of King Kong, with Charles Grodin playing a greedy employee of oil giant Petrox who stumbles upon the misunderstood simian’s secret island while on an exploratory mission. Jeff Bridges plays the idealistic naturalist/photographer who falls in love with Lange’s wannabe actress. But no amount of star power, remote control helicopters or balsa wood gates smashed by a man in a gorilla costume could stop “King Kong” from being an unmitigated flop.
De Laurentiis couldn’t get out of disaster mode and followed “King Kong” with 1977’s “Orca,” which presumably was the killer whale response to “Jaws.” The over the top “Flash Gordon” began the 1980s for De Laurentiis, and he and director Mike Hodges had to deal with the mercurial Sam J. Jones in the title role. Much of Jones’ dialogue had to be dubbed because the actor refused to come back and loop any of his lines. De Laurentiis then scored a hit with the epic “Ragtime” (1981). Directed by Milos Forman, this lovingly rendered mélange of early 1900s New York was both a critical and financial success, and gave actor James Cagney a nice coda to his career.
The rest of the 1980s played out much as the 1970s did. For every hit such as “The Dead Zone” (which he served as executive producer but received no credit) there were flops such as “Dune.” While a producer or executive producer should only shoulder so much blame (or receive an equal amount of credit if the movie is a success) it was pretty clear that De Laurentiis, who definitely had a penchant for sweeping epics or larger than life tales, found himself attached to some big movies that wound up with small results.
He had success with both of the Conan movies, which spawned a brief revival of the sword and sandals genre and helped cement Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the big screen’s most formidable leading men. 1986’s “Tai-Pan” seemed to be borne out of much of the same circumstances that “King Kong” had been ten years before. “Tai-Pan” had been kicking around the major studios for almost twenty years, with multiple leading men attached to the project (such as Steve McQueen and Roger Moore). With a massive budget and a less than well-known male lead (Bryan Brown) the movie looks nice, but ultimately goes nowhere and it sunk without a trace, taking most of its $25 million budget with it.
De Laurentiis produced “Manhunter,” the first big screen treatment of Hannibal Lecter. The movie was a solid hit, with Bryan Cox as the psychotic doctor, but is often overshadowed by “The Silence of the Lambs.” Inexplicably, De Laurentiis reunited with Guillermin again for “King Kong Lives” in 1986, which has the giant ape not dead but in a coma and needing a heart transplant from a newly found female Kong. Perhaps not great cinema, but certainly enjoyable on some levels.
De Laurentiis would go onto produce films such as “Army of Darkness” and the Madonna vehicle “Body of Evidence” in the 1990s, and the submarine thriller “U-571” to start off the 2000s. He produced “Hannibal” (2001) and “Red Dragon,” (2002) each featuring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal. Both were very well received, the former directed by Ridley Scott and the latter by Brett Ratner.
Even well into his eighties, De Laurentiis continued to produce, albeit sporadically, with three films in 2007 being his last credits. In trying to encapsulate the man’s professional life, it can be said that De Laurentiis’ weakness for the film epic led to some of the most spectacular failures in Hollywood history. But his vision and determinedness also allowed him to pursue his dream as he made the next success that would follow a failure.