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Boasting a genuine gift for physical comedy, the exuberant Roberto Benigni started his career in underground theater and later attained great popularity in Italian films and television. Discovered while performing comic monologues in Rome, Benigni began to write and act in various Italian productions, earning significant local fame. Thanks to the imaginative casting of director Jim Jarmusch, he had his international breakout role in the laidback farce "Down by Law" (1986), despite speaking no English at the time. From the start, the left-leaning comic liked to flirt with the boundaries of taste - even making fun of the Pope on Italian television, something that was simply not done. He was also determined to push boundaries in cinema, choosing risky subject matter rarely utilized in comedy. An attempt to sell him to mainstream American audiences as a successor to Peter Sellers in "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993) did not fly, but Benigni's earnest comedy-drama about the Holocaust, "Life is Beautiful" (1997), became a groundbreaking global success and the highest grossing foreign language film in America. Such comedic experiments were consistently successful in Italy, but not always internationally, with his expensive interpretation of "Pinocchio" (2002) a major failure. While Benigni's high-spirited persona exasperated some, his obvious comedic abilities and artistic daring marked him as one of the most important comedians of his generation.
Roberto Remigio Benigni was born on Oct. 27, 1952 in Manciano, Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy. He grew up with three sisters in the small village of Misericordia and was sent by his parents to Florence to study for the priesthood. However, Benigni ran away and joined a circus, and by the late 1960s, he was performing solo in a Rome theater. Guiseppe Bertolucci, brother of acclaimed director Bernardo Bertolucci, caught one of Benigni's performances and hired him to write and star in the TV miniseries "Onda libera" ("Free Wave") (1976) and the comedy feature, "Berlinguer: I Love You" (1977), both of which earned Benigni considerable notice. Additional roles followed in the sexy comedy "Tigers in Lipstick" (1979), Costa-Gavras' drama "Clair de femme" ("Womanlight") (1979), and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Luna" (1979), and he also began to direct his own features with "Tu mi turbi"( "You Upset Me") (1983).
While serving on the jury of Salsamaggiore Film Festival, Benigni befriended fellow juror Jim Jarmusch and the American director asked him to appear in his next film, "Down by Law" (1986). Although he spoke no English, Benigni agreed and was cast as an eternally cheerful convict who drives his cellmates (Tom Waits and John Lurie) half-mad with his endless attempts (in very broken English) at repartee and camaraderie. Many critics cited Benigni as the highlight of the picture and the comedian also did a short for Jarmusch called "Strange to Meet You" (1987), in which the naturally caffeinated Italian shared the screen for six minutes with his polar opposite, the unbelievably deadpan Steven Wright (the segment was among several short subjects that Jarmusch included in the 2003 release, "Coffee and Cigarettes").
Benigni's next projects found him working alongside Walter Matthau in the farce "Il piccolo diavolo" ("The Little Devil") (1988) and under the direction of Federico Fellini in "La Voce della luna" ("The Voice of the Moon") (1990), but neither earned a release in the U.S. The actor worked again with Jarmusch, appearing in a segment of "Night on Earth" (1991), a collection of five stories about the lives of cab drivers in various cities around the globe. Benigni's main project that year, though, was "Johnny Stecchino" (1991), where he played a rather dimwitted bus driver who is mistaken for a notorious mobster and becomes entangled with a scheming femme fatale played by frequent co-star Nicoletta Braschi, whom Benigni married that year. The highest grossing comedy ever released in Italy, "Johnny Stecchino" was largely ignored in the U.S. but still received enough attention for Benigni to land his first American lead part.
The death of Peter Sellers should have brought an end to the "Pink Panther" film series, but director Blake Edwards was determined to carry on, first using previously unseen footage of Sellers to fashion "Trail of the Pink Panther" (1982) and then little known actor Ted Wass as a similar bumbler in "Curse of the Pink Panther" (1983). Although these films were not well-received, Edwards tried again a decade later with "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993) and tapped Benigni to play Inspector Clouseau's son, who is every bit the destructive idiot. Although Benigni managed to display his considerable physical comedy skills on a couple of occasions and invested the proceedings with his usual energy, the film was a tiresome misfire and a predictable failure in the U.S., though Italian moviegoers ate it up. Benigni had a better artistic experience back home with his next project, "The Monster" (1994), which featured a mistaken identity plot similar to "Johnny Stecchino." A serial sex maniac/murderer is on the loose and bumbling innocent Benigni is the prime suspect, thanks to a series of unfortunate occurrences. As with the gangster spoof, the film made nary a ripple in America, but went through the roof in Italy.
Benigni's father had spent two years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II and stories he told his son about the experience found their way into the actor's next project, "Life is Beautiful" (1997). Benigni directed and starred as a Jewish man sent to such a camp with his young son. In order to try and spare the boy from the horrors, he convinces him that it is all part of an elaborate game. Even more so than "The Monster," the premise of "Life is Beautiful" courted controversy and the film was denounced in some quarters, with film critic David Denby of The New Yorker labelling it "a benign form of holocaust denial." However, the overall response was resoundingly positive and the film did an unprecedented amount of business for a foreign film in America. "Life is Beautiful" subsequently won both the Best Actor and Best Foreign Film prize and Benigni's wildly ecstatic response (which saw the actor clamouring over the backs of seats in order to reach the stage) during the ceremony helped to further endear him to audiences worldwide. He remained among the only performers to ever direct himself in a performance that would net a Best Actor Oscar.
Following an appearance in the big-budget fantasy "Astérix et Obélix contre César" ("Astérix and Obélix Vs. César") (1999), Benigni launched into "Pinocchio" (2002), a lavish adaptation of the fairy tale with a budget equivalent to $45 million, the most expensive Italian movie to date. Almost 50 years old at the time, he made the unusual move of casting himself as the titular character, but in his dual role as director, ensured that the production benefitted from first-rate technical attributes. Convinced that the only conceivable market in America was little children, distributor Miramax hastily prepared an English language version, with Breckin Meyer dubbing Benigni, and Glenn Close, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Cheech Marin doing other cast members. The release was an utter disaster, with the film unspooling to mostly empty seats, and critics gave it a thorough trashing (it was among the only major releases to receive a 0% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes scale).The studio issued the original Italian version with English subtitles a few weeks later, but the critical and audience response did not improve and Benigni was saddled with a Worst Actor Razzie Award. While "Pinocchio" fared much better in Italy, its final totals fell short of the mammoth production costs.
"The Tiger and the Snow" (2005) found Benigni playing an Italian poet who heads to Iraq to see his love (Nicoletta Braschi), a fellow writer who sustained a severe injury while in the country. Echoing "Life is Beautiful" in basic ways, the film mixed instances of rather broad humor with tenderness and heartfelt emotion. Unfortunately, "The Tiger and the Snow" did nothing to rehabilitate Benigni's reputation in America and it came and went with little notice, aside from critics, who were only slightly kinder than they had been with "Pinocchio." Benigni spent the next two years touring Italy with "Everything About Dante," a one man show based on "The Divine Comedy" by Italian poet Dante Alighieri. During a 2007 performance in Cosenza, a man pulled out a gun and fired six shots; none hit Benigni, but a security guard was wounded. Benigni brought an English version of the show to America in 2009 and provided a voice for "La commedia di Amos Poe" ("The Comedy of Amos Poe") (2010), which was also based on Alighieri's classic. He also returned to movie screens under the direction of fellow master comic Woody Allen in "To Rome with Love" (2012). The romantic comedy anthology featured Benigni in good form as a bland everyman who suddenly finds himself famous for no conceivable reason. While the material was rather threadbare, the actor utilized his patented brand of physical comedy to bolster the proceedings and Benigni's story provided the lion's share of laughs.
By John Charles
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Cast (Feature Film)
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Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Introduced to performing at age 10 by relatives who involved him in an improvised song and poetry act
Discovered at age 16 by the director of an experimental theater group while delivering an improvised satirical political speech in Italy
Made stage debut at the Satiri in Rome in the comedy "I Burosaui"
Became famous in Italy for the series "Onda Libera"; co-wrote with Giuseppe Bertolucci; the series was suspended due to censorship
Feature acting debut, "Berlinguer, Ti Voglio Bene/Berlinguer, I Love You"; directed by Giuseppe Bertolucci
Played a lazy film critic who never watches the films he's asked to review on the TV series "L'altra domenica"
Feature writing and directing debut, "Tu Mi Turbi/You Disturb Me"; first film collaboration with future wife Nicoletta Braschi
Starred in the concert film of his one-man show "TuttoBenigni"; directed by Giuseppe Bertolucci
English-language acting debut, Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law"; first collaboration with writer-director Jarmusch
U.S. screenwriting debut, co-wrote (with Jarmusch and Steven Wright) and co-starred (with Wright) in "Coffee and Cigarettes"; also directed by Jarmusch
Directed and starred in the Italian comedy "Johnny Stecchino"; again co-starred with Nicoletta Braschi
American debut as a lead, Blake Edwards' "Son of the Pink Panther"
Feature producing debut, "The Monster"; also co-wrote, directed, and starred
Earned international acclaim for his tragicomedy "La Vita e Bella/Life Is Beautiful"; co-wrote, directed, and starred; film received seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor; became only the second person in Oscar history to direct himself to a Best Actor win
Returned to features as star and director of the live-action film "Pinocchio"
Starred in and directed "The Tiger and the Snow"; again co-starred with wife Nicoletta Braschi
Toured Italy with his one-man show "TuttoDante/Everything About Dante"
Made U.S. stage debut when he brought "TuttoDante" to America
Returned to features with a role in Woody Allen's romantic comedy "To Rome with Love"