Obituary: Gabriele Ferzetti, actor

Gabriele Ferzetti, Italian actor who played James Bond's father-in-law in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Picture: Getty

Gabriele Ferzetti, Italian actor who played James Bond's father-in-law in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Picture: Getty

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ITALIAN actor who played James Bond’s father-in-law in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Gabriele Ferzetti, actor.

Born: 17 March, 1925, in Rome.

Died: 2 Decemeber, 2015, in Rome, aged 90.

Gabriele Ferzetti starred in an Italian existentialist masterpiece, which was once voted the second-best film ever made. But he would probably be most readily recognised by mainstream international audiences as James Bond’s father-in-law, the role he played in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, when George Lazenby took over temporarily from Sean Connery as 007.

Ferzetti was Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Unione Corse, the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia, and father of the beautiful, but deeply troubled Tracy di Vicenzo, played by Diana Rigg, though in real life Rigg was only 13 years younger than Ferzetti.

It is the ultimate “meet cute” when Bond first sees Tracy attempting to commit suicide by walking out into the sea on a Portugese beach. Bond rescues her,

Draco encourages a romance and the two of them marry. But as they drive away from the wedding Tracy is killed in a hail of bullets from Blofeld and Irma Bunt.

Bond cradles her in his arms and, his voice cracking, he assures a policeman that they have stopped only for a moment – “We have all the time in the world.” The scene goes a long way to explain all that deep-seated angst in the Daniel Craig films.

The previous year Ferzetti was Morton, the crippled railroad boss who hires killer Henry Fonda, in Sergio Leone’s sprawling western epic Once Upon a Time in the West. In both films he was dubbed because of his strong Italian accent and limited English.

By that time he was well-established in Italian cinema and among arthouse audiences internationally.

He was darkly handsome and often played aristocratic or playboy characters and was one of a group of rich, bored holiday-makers in L’Avventura, the film that elevated Michelangelo Antonioni to the top rank of European directors.

In the film Ferzetti’s girlfriend disappears. He and her best friend (played by Monica Vitti) look for her, but do not seem overly bothered and end up making love instead. The missing woman is never found, her disappearance never explained.

L’Avventura was booed when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. It was very slow and nothing much happened, but it was a film that haunted and troubled those who saw it and reflected the time in which it was made.

Two years later, in Sight and Sound magazine’s famous ten-year international poll, critics voted it the second best film ever, behind Citizen Kane. It gradually slipped out of the Top 50.

In a career spanning 70 years, Ferzetti made well over 100 films, one of the most recent being the highly acclaimed I Am Love six years ago.

He played an aging Milanese industrialist and the Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was impressive as his Russian-born daughter-in-law.

Born Pasquale Ferzetti into a middle-class family in Rome in 1925, he won a scholarship to the Silvio d’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Arts, but was expelled for accepting professional work without permission. He began appearing in small roles in films in his teens.

By the early 1950s he was getting starring roles and and played Gina Lollobrigida’s husband in the comedy The Wayward Wife and the composer Puccini in an Italian biopic and a follow-up.

He did however also develop quite a reputation for being temperamental and refused to court producers, executives and press to promote his career.

When he married, in 1958, he chose to do so in the little hilltop republic of San Marino in the hope of evading the media, but they found him anyway. The marriage ended in divorce, but produced one daughter, Anna Ferzetti, who became an actress.

Ferzetti first worked with Antonioni on Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) in the mid-1950s, but it was L’Avventura that consolidated his place in international cinema, playing a disillusioned architect.

At the end of the film he weeps, not from guilt or loss, but from emptiness and meaninglessness. The character shared a certain apathy with the protagonist in Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger. The film remains controversial to this day, but there is no doubting its impact and influence at the time.

Its success helped prise open the door to roles in prestigious international films, including Jessica, with Angie Dickinson – with whom Ferzetti became infatuated; the war film Torpedo Bay, in which his Italian submarine commander plays cat-and-mouse with James Mason; and John Huston’s The Bible, in which he was Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Then came Bond and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. But while these films reached huge audiences, Ferzetti had slipped into supporting roles and he admitted that he felt he “wasted” his talent in too many films in his early years. “I worried too much about looking good,” he said. “Sometimes I thought more about which way to face the camera than about my performance.”

In the 1970s he played a former SS officer in the controversial drama The Night Porter, with Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, and he appeared with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Divorce His – Divorce Hers, a two-part television drama, looking at the collapse of a marriage from both sides.

He also did a lot of Italian theatre and television.

His characterisation of the ailling patriarch in I Am Love prompted comparisons with King Lear.

BRIAN PENDREIGH

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