The novice and the legend

Adventures of the back-lot lads in Cinecitt

Michael Bernosky
April 19, 2007

Actors live lives of shifting fortune. Their constant scrambling to findcreative employment is never easy, nor was it probably ever meant to be easy.It’s a creative life fueled by espresso and tobacco, buoyed by ample amounts ofhope and wit. You’re always on the lookout for omens and portents which mightsignal that the gods of fortune have finally chosen you.

 

Hopes were always high for the smallcommunity of English-speaking actors eking out their existences in Roma back inthe early 1990s. Dependable jobs were few and far between, though one old ‘showbiz’ adage proved true: you could work a lot—if you were willing to work forfree, or nearly so. Normally, you could earn a living doing training videos fordubious producers offering magic solutions to Italians eager to learn English.Otherwise there were corporate presentations (at various levels of sincerity)to captive English-speaking audiences bedazzled by Italian culture andbefuddled on Italian wine. Of course, there were occasional bit parts onquickie film shoots, almost none of which ever reached a real viewing public.

 

In an unexpected stroke of luck,I had been called to Rome’s Cinecittà to dub a film that had been shot onlocation there the month before. As I entered its huge gates, I felt like a kidagain, staring open-mouthed at huge bits and pieces of movies I’d seen as ayouth addicted to retrospective double features of Italian films. The replica Fontana di Trevifrom LaDolce Vitaleaned over against a fence. A monumental head of the EmperorConstantine from Ben Hur was propped at an awkward angle, next to an enormous Sphinx and columnsfrom Cleopatra.‘Damn’, I thought and smiled at the guard, ‘Damn if I’m not a working actor atCinecittà’.

 

The job was, as promised, veryprofessional, not like most of the under-budgeted productions I’d worked for instudios that made you understand what claustrophobics suffered. With scripts inhand, half a dozen English-speaking actors re-spoke the lines for all thesecondary roles in a made-for-American-TV cops-and-robbers flick, dubbingfor  the Italian actors, who spoke theirlines in cacophonously erratic English.

 

‘O.K. lads, buon lavoro, good work’, Carlo, theproducer, told us after a while. There is no praise like the praise of apleased producer, because there is no cruelty greater than the cruelty of adispleased producer, and our Carlo was one very pleased puppy. ‘Time for un caffè and a smoke if you want. Then beback here in half hour, understand’? Off we went to the studio canteen—it wastime for what I had once heard defined as ‘concentrated talent in a tiny cup’.Espresso is the rocket fuel of the thespic profession. It’s an all-purposecatalysis, lubricant and stimulant, and there is none better to be found in allof Italia than at Cinecittà. ‘How good is this’, I thought, ‘working forserious money, in the studios where the greats have acted, what more couldpossibly happen to make this a better day’?

 

The noise level suddenly droppedfrom a drone to near silence, more shocking than if a bomb had been detonatednext door. The usual crazed excess of Italian coffee bar conversations suddenlyceased as if the caffè had been laced with tranquilizers. My usually loquaciousEnglish-speaking companions stopped in mid-monologues. I turned casually to seewhat could have occurred to still this pack of extraverts, expecting at theleast some long-legged starlet, various feminine protuberances all aquiver,sinuously meandering our way.

 

Instead, standing in the opendoor was an older man, in that indeterminate movie age group that ranges from60 to eternity. He was dressed extravagantly in a white suit, shirt and tie,with a broad-brimmed white fedora. He sauntered in with the aid of an elegantblack walking stick topped with a silver knob. The signore stopped and looked at all of us with a smile that literally lit up theroom, a cliché until that time I had never believed could occur. I whispered tomy nearest colleague, ‘Who’s the old bloke? Does he own the place? What’s withthe Tom Wolfe haberdashery’?

I expected my oh-so-clever witto get a laugh, or at least a knowing snicker from my fellow actors. Instead anunknown Italian techie on my left gave me a sharp elbow in the ribs. With aquick glance my way, he whispered, ‘MaestroFefe, idiota. Lui è Maestro Fefe’! ‘Who the hell is Fefe’, I asked myself. I thought I knew all the great Italian directors. Fellini, De Sica, Rosellini,Antonioni, Visconti, Zefferelli, Pasolini, Bertolucci: my mind raced—who had Imissed?

 

So I tried again for someinformation, whispering to the barista, ‘Ilvecchio signore, chi è’? She looked down at me the wayan Harvard literature professor might disdainfully glance at an ignorantred-necked Bubba who had just asked, ‘What’d dis Shakyspear fella’ writeanyway?’, staring a hole right through me. ‘Buffoneamericano, lui è Maestro Fefe,’ she hissed and turnedin his direction with a caffè, obviously made to his liking. ‘Suo caffè, Maestro’, she reverently announced, as he approached the bar.

 

The Maestro, who was still a mystery to me, sipped his caffè and tipped his cup in Carlo’s direction. ‘Carlito,ragazzo mio, stai bene’, he intoned, and exchangedembraces and baci with our producer. Carlo looked like a schoolboy receiving his firstcommendation, and as I glanced around, every eye in the room was on them,taking in this laying on of hands. The producer noticed me standing directlybehind them and then motioned with his head for me to come around. When Ihesitated, he motioned ever more insistently. I was being summoned to meet the Maestro, and I had no idea why.

 

Carlo was amused by myshakiness; he had just spent the morning watching me be the cockiest actor in aroom full of cocky actors. ‘Maestro,allow me to introduce you to one of my new lads, doing a great job.’

 

The old man scrutinized me for asecond, then gave me that million-lire smile that had transfixed every otherperson in the room. ‘Unattore, eh? It’s my pleasure to meet you,’ as he extended his hand in greeting,‘Federico Fellini. And your name’?

 

Fellini! Maestro Fefe was Federico Fellini! The barista was right: I was a buffone americano. Adrenaline pumping, mind racing, I gaped. How could I not have known?I’d come to Rome from New York City, where no one—and I mean no one—spoke tothe celebrities we saw regularly in the street. Hell, I once bowled over DustinHoffman coming out of a restaurant, and simply said ‘Sorry’, not ‘Sorry, Mr.Hoffman,’ and certainly not ‘Sorry Dusty—by the way I really liked your lastpicture. I’m an actor, too, you know’. I mean there’s a certain etiquette,rough as it may be, and all actors violated it only at their peril. Now that Iwas in the presence of one of cinema’s reigning geniuses what did I do?

 

‘Michele in italiano, Maestro,’ I responded, “Michael” inAmerican.’

 

‘What a dumb thing to say’! Ithought as soon as it was out of my mouth. I hadn’t been tongue-tied sinceLassie was a pup, yet here I was lost for words. Then I discovered why thereverence, why the silent awe, why the deference—or as my Italian actingcolleagues would say—rispetto assolutamente.

 

‘Ah, the name of the Arcangelo, a good name for an attore, but there are many, eh?’ Fellini said with agracious tact, ‘Tell me about your work here. How is Carlo to work for? Somesay he is a tyrant, but what art is produced without a little suffering’? hesaid with a wink and nudge to Carlo, who looked my way immediately.

 

There are some key moments inlife that stick in the memory forever, and this was certainly about to be oneof those. If I blew it, there would be no more working for Carlo, no moreCinecittà, and worse, I might signal disrespect for the legendary Fellini. ‘Signor Fellini, Carlo is a producer, sometimes happy,sometimes not so happy, but always out to achieve perfection. Do you know whatthey say in Los Angeles? If you have to have a heart transplant, make sure youget one from a film producer. Why? Because it’s never been used’.

 

Fellini stared at me for amoment, turned to Carlo, and then they both burst into uproarious laughter.‘Seems to me this americano knows something about producers Carlito’, the Maestro chuckled, ‘sotell me, Michele, what about film directors’?

 

Oh damn, I really put my foot inthe bear trap this time, but in for a dime in for a dollar as my old actingteacher used to say. It’s what an actor must do, take risks and live with theconsequences. ‘Directors, Maestro’? I responded, ‘Actors are magnificent creatures, they just don’talways know the way. Yet they always think they do. So if you ask me, they needto be guided like a herd of high-strung thoroughbreds.’

 

Fellini looked me up and down. Ifroze again, my fate hovering in the air before me. ‘Certo, but tell me attore americano, what use is a regista, a director, if these attori are so brilliant? Why not let them just run free’?

 

A regista? I knew Fellini had a reputation for asserting his will and having atemper to match, but the results were brilliant. I could only imagine whatworking with a pack of talented self-assertive Italian actors must have beenlike. But New York actors aren’t exactly shrinking violets. ‘Maestro’, I continued, ‘Let me put itthis way. There can be many opinions, but only one matters. Let us never forgetthat a camel is a horse designed by a committee.’ He roared with delight, Carloalmost wet himself, the entire room joined in, and the bar volume went back upto normal.

 

‘Barista, give me and this attore americano another caffè, prego’, Fellini gestured, ‘Now what can I tell you, eh’?

 

‘Tell me how to be a betteractor—no, Maestro, how to be the best’, I said. After all, it’s not every day you can aska genius for advice.

 

He nodded sagely, ‘Goodquestion. Ah, I have always held that there three simple rules for attori. Primo fatto, the truth is always contained in the script, no matter how bizarre,how abstract, how surreal. Secondo fatto, you are who you are, the character must be you in the imaginedcircumstance of the script—anything else is false. Terzo, be prepared but be prepared to change. Give the regista, the director, many choices...’

 

I interrupted, ‘and allow the director to direct’.

 

‘Esattamente’, the Maestro chortled, ‘follow the Muses, but have discipline: not an easy course tofollow, not an easy life to lead’.

 

‘As wesay in America’, I quipped, ‘I should have listened to my mother and gone tobusiness school’.

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