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The Nation | Carlo Ponti: 1912 - 2007

Prolific producer with `new vision'

January 11, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Carlo Ponti, the prolific Italian producer of such internationally acclaimed films as "Doctor Zhivago" and "Blow-Up" and the longtime husband of Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren, whom he discovered as a teenager in the 1950s and helped build into a star, has died. He was 94.

Ponti, who had been hospitalized for about 10 days with pulmonary complications, died Tuesday at a hospital in Geneva, his family said in a statement Wednesday.

"His death marks the end of an era for filmmaking because Ponti embodied a great and courageous push to innovate, promoted unforgettable talents, and enjoyed huge success," Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said Wednesday.

During a decades-long career that reflected the rise of Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and the French New Wave in the 1960s, Ponti was a producer on about 150 movies, including Federico Fellini's Oscar-winning best foreign language film "La Strada" (with then-partner Dino De Laurentiis), Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt," Claude Chabrol's "Bluebeard," Jacques Demy's "Lola" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," "Zabriskie Point" and "The Passenger."

The Ponti and David Lean-produced "Doctor Zhivago," director Lean's epic 1965 romantic drama set against the Russian Revolution, received an Oscar nomination for best picture.

Ponti also produced Vittorio De Sica's "Two Women," a 1960 Italian World War II drama that earned Loren an Oscar for best actress.

"I remember Carlo Ponti and our adventures together with great fondness, and I'm deeply saddened by the passing of a great producer and a dear friend," De Laurentiis, who was besieged with interview requests Wednesday from Italian TV shows, said from Los Angeles via an intermediary.

Those who knew Ponti recalled his good nature and devotion to Loren, who reportedly was at his bedside when he died.

"I admired the way he was with Sophia Loren," Kirk Douglas, who starred in the Ponti-De Laurentiis-produced 1955 film "Ulysses," told The Times on Wednesday. "He took care of her, and his love for her was so apparent; he was always very solicitous, and I admired that very much."

Merv Griffin, who knows Loren well and met Ponti a number of times, said he was "a very mild, sweet, gentle man, who, I guess, was almost a father image for Sophia, who was very devoted to him.

"Her beginnings were so difficult, and he guided her whole career and produced some great films and then fathered two wonderful young men" with Loren -- Carlo Ponti Jr., the music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, and Edoardo, a filmmaker.

Rick Jewell, a film professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, considers Ponti to be "one of the giants in the history of producing."

"It's an absolutely extraordinary kind of career just in terms of the range of film artists he worked with and the quality of the best films he produced," Jewell told The Times last year.

Ponti, Jewell said, "was in the vanguard of a kind of new vision of the producer that emerged after World War II. Up to that point, producers had been pretty much local or national in the sense that if you were a Hollywood filmmaker you worked in Hollywood and that was it.

"What Ponti did, along with his onetime partner, Dino De Laurentiis, is they became international producers. Ponti produced most of his films in Italy, but he also worked in France, England, Hollywood and so on."

As a producer, Ponti once said: "I like the cinema because you imagine a thing and after a while you see it. Just like building a house.... You construct a building from raw materials, and with films you give life to things that don't exist."

Born Dec. 11, 1912, in Magenta, Italy, an industrial town not far from Milan, Ponti earned a law degree from the University of Milan in 1934. He was practicing law in Milan in the late '30s when a friend asked him if he would take his place on the board of a film company.

Ponti soon became the Milan film company's executive vice president. His first film as a producer was the 1941 Mario Soldati-directed drama "Piccolo Mondo Antico" ("Old-Fashioned World"). The plot of the film, which has been called "one of the key works from the Italian fascist era," dealt with the 19th century patriotic movement to liberate Italian states from foreign domination. Considered anti-German by the Italian government, the film reportedly led to Ponti's brief imprisonment.

After the war, he went to work as a producer at Lux Film in Rome. Among his producing credits during his several years at Lux were Luigi Zampa's "A Yank in Rome" and "To Live in Peace."

In 1950, Ponti began a successful producing partnership with De Laurentiis, during which they shared credits on a string of films through much of the '50s, including Roberto Rossellini's "Europa '51"; Robert Rossen's "Mambo," and King Vidor's "War and Peace," starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.

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