NICE, France — When director Tony Gatlif arrived in the old port in Nice three years ago to scout locations for his latest film, "Mondo," little did he know he would find one of his future stars propped against the doors of a church, waiting for spare change from the parishioners.
"I was struck by his beautiful gaze," Gatlif says.
Jerry Smith, 68, a homeless Scottish fisherman who has lived in Nice for 11 years, wasn't overly surprised when the director invited him for a drink and offered him a major part in a film: People in the neighborhood are always buying Smith meals or giving him money and clothing.
"They handed me the script," Smith recalled. "A few days later, Tony came to pick me up at my place under the highway bridge, my home without windows and doors," he added with a laugh.
Smith was then whisked off into a three-star hotel, where he lived for two months with cast and crew during the shoot.
"Mondo," which opened Friday at the Nuart, is the follow-up to Gatlif's "Latcho Drom" (1993), awarded several international prizes. Based on a story by French author J.M.G. Le Clezio, the film is a modern fable about a free-spirited Gypsy boy who mysteriously turns up in the streets of Nice and affects the lives of everyone he encounters. Mondo's touching friendship with Dadi, an elderly vagabond who carries white doves in his perforated suitcase, plays a central part of the drama.
"I wanted this film to ring true," the director said, "no faking, no special effects. As Dadi, Jerry was playing his own character. And he was brilliant, really a great actor."
For his part, Smith has nothing but fond memories of the experience. "Oh, I enjoyed it," he said. "I had my own room, a telephone, central heating, a big bed and a beautiful bathroom."
Although he admitted that he luxuriated in three showers a day, the good food and warm family atmosphere, Smith said the best part of the filming was getting to know his Romanian co-star, Ovidiu Balan, who plays Mondo.
Gatlif had spotted the angelic-looking urchin on the Paris Metro. At the time he was living in a Gypsy camp on the outskirts of the city with his mother and grandmother and was about to be deported. With the help of producer Michele Ray-Gavras (wife of director Constantin Costa-Gavras), Gatlif managed to stall police and cast the 11-year-old.
"Ovidiu was all mischief, but such a beautiful boy," Smith said. "He spoke some French--couldn't read or write--but we understood each other." Balan, now almost 14 and back in Romania with his family, will play a tough young Mafioso in Gatlif's newest movie, "Gadjo Dilo" (The Crazy Outsider), which is still in the editing room.
"During the shoot, Jerry became everyone's grandfather," Gatlif said. "He was always at the head of the table rolling cigarettes or taking one of the babies in his arms."
But once it was over, Smith was anxious to get back to his own turf, an enormous concrete slab with traffic roaring overhead in the roughest neighborhood in Nice.
"The hotel was too warm for me," he said with a grin. "It's been a while that I've been living like what you'd call a hobo."
Smith hasn't always lived the hobo life. Twenty-five years ago, he owned a boat in Cromarty, Scotland, but the fishing trade became increasingly difficult for small-time operators. (Most of Smith's claims have been authenticated by a Scottish documentary crew that profiled him last year, after the film was released in Europe.)
"In those days, I could make maybe 300 pounds a day. Today it would be 100 pounds for one week, and after you pay for the diesel for the boat, there'd be nothing left." One day, Smith's house caught fire ("something electrical; it was 300 years old"), and only weeks later, his elderly aunt, who had raised him, died a month short of her 100th birthday.
Smith sold his boat, collected insurance for his home, stuffed the 70,000 pounds sterling in his pockets and left, wandering all over Europe.
"I walked and walked. I wasn't in any rush. Never took trains or buses," he said. "I stayed in hotels, until I was robbed." After a while, Smith decided that if he were going to remain jobless, the sunny Riviera was the only place to be.
Other facts are sketchily evoked in passing: "Believe it or not, I went to Gordonstone, the same school as the Duke of Edinburgh. Oh, I've dined with royalty." Smith also claims that he served in the Royal Navy and traveled all around the world. In his mid-40s, he said, he married a young Catalonian woman who refused to live in Scotland. She died of cancer at 33 and his two teenage sons live in Spain with their grandparents.
Although at times he misses his village, particularly his greenhouse, Smith said he feels content where he is. Unlike many homeless people, Smith said he prides himself in an organized "clean" life. He sleeps on an immaculate platform bed that he built, takes no drugs, doesn't drink excessively, does his laundry every week and prepares regular meals for himself with a pressure cooker someone gave him.