When you think about some of your favorite western films you think about cowboys, the great American Wild West, good guys vs bad guys, and all the dramatic gunfights. But you probably didn't realize that an Italian is behind some of the most classic films in the genre. Director Sergio Leone can not only be credited for turning Clint Eastwood into a star but for creating the Spaghetti Western genre itself. Though he only directed a total of seven films (8 including the one he took over), his contribution to the film world will always be remembered.
Leone grew up in Rome, Italy, the son of director Roberto Roberti and silent film actress Bice Valerian. He had grown up watching his father work and decided to drop out of law school when he was 18 to follow in his footsteps. Leone got his start as an assistant director as well as a screenwriter helping with major "sword and sandal" productions. He was able to make his big directorial debut when Mario Bonnard dropped out of the 1959 film The Last Days of Pompeii and Leone got to finish the project. After directing a similar historical gladiator film, The Colossus of Rhodes, Leone shifted his sights on American westerns.
The director had grown up loving western films as a kid but had some issues with how they were depicted in American cinema.
Variety's Hank Werba wrote in 1968, "To Leone, the westerner was a predatory creature at every level. There were no clear ethical or moral reference lines. The plainsman acted and reacted violently, generally motivated by such basics as greed, revenge or self-survival. It represented a complete switch from the law-virtue syndrome of the past."
For $100,000, Leone made his western debut with A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood was a TV star at the time, well-known for his series Rawhide. But after larger stars turned down the role, he accepted the small salary of $15k and it would change his life. The Spaghetti Western had some stark differences between what you'd see in a traditional John Ford western. They were known for their Spanish style scenery and a darker, more realistic view of what men in the Wild West were really like. Their criminal behavior was highlighted and they looked much rougher around the edges than how you'd see John Wayne. The film was a massive success that led to two more films starring "The Man With No Name" as well as Lee Van Cleef -- For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Dollars Trilogy as it became known is still one of the most beloved trilogies of western films ever made. Recognizable for his dramatic close-ups and lengthy-long shots, the Trilogy became a massive success for Leone, opening up more doors in the film world.
The Italian director was invited to Hollywood to direct Once Upon a Time in the West starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale. Initially, Fonda declined the role but after speaking with Eli Wallach who had previously worked with Leone, he changed his mind. Duck, You Sucker! (also known as A Fistful of Dynamite) followed starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn, centered around the Mexican Revolution. It seemed like the filmmaker was on top of his career when he was asked to direct The Godfather. But he decided to decline in order to work on his passion project, Once Upon a Time in America.
Leone spent a decade perfecting the mob drama that starred Robert De Niro and James Woods. The four-hour film received a standing ovation at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival but unfortunately, the studio decided that it was too long and made some major cuts. The adjustments didn't do the film any favors and it wasn't well-received in the American market. It did better in its original version overseas but for Leone, he was incredibly discouraged. It ended up being his last film and he passed away from a heart attack 5 years later. There were many other films that Leone contributed to as a Second Unit director including A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe, Ben-Hur, My Name Is Nobody and Helen of Troy. But Leone's films that will always be best remembered are the Spaghetti Westerns which honestly hold up well to this day.