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They Were More Than Faces:

Unsung American Actors in Europe

by Tony Nash

From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the countries of Italy, Germany, and Spain had given fame and success to a series of American actors who had either gone unnoticed or didn’t meet up to the standards of the day for idolism in the United States. Now while American actors did go overseas to work with the likes of Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, and De Sica, these were usually co-productions or a promise of a big producer for distribution in the US, and no actor as of yet was beginning to have trouble finding work. The Western in particular had risen in popularity in Europe, and when the producers couldn’t get names like Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Gary Cooper, or John Wayne, they looked to the character actors who either had the pleasure of working with the big names or were struggling up-and-comers who just couldn’t get their foot in the door in Hollywood. Some had the sad story of being over the hill and losing the interest of fans, and often sought work in Europe as a means of a second chance career. Names like Lee Van Cleef, John Saxon, John Ireland, and even Peter Lupes (before Mission: Impossible) come to mind as examples of this, but there were others just as good who often get overlooked.

Frank Wolff (1928-1971)

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Born to well-to-do parents in California, Frank Wolff had the means to be a great actor. Having studied at UCLA and with the aid of friends Roger Corman and Monte Hellman, slowly worked up the ladder in low budget affairs to stints on classic TV shows like The Saint, Rawhide, and The Twilight Zone. Wolff was versatile in playing good guys, bad guys, psychos, henchmen, tragic figures, etc, and played in all genres well. While doing the Greek sword-and-sandal film Atlas for Corman in Italy, filmmaker Francesco Rosi noticed Wolff’s photo in a set of headshots and asked him to take the role of Gaspar Pisciotta in his Noir-Biopic of Sicilian outlaw Salvatore Guiliano. While his performance was well received, Wolff was hesitant of sticking around in Europe as he wanted a career back home. Corman convinced Wolff he would receive much more offers of work than he would in Hollywood, and Wolff found himself in a string of “important” Italian films. His second most noted part in this stage was in Il Processo di Verona (The Verona Trials), playing Mussolini’s ill fated son-in-law. His highly praised performance as the main protagonist’s friend in Elia Kazan’s America, America should’ve been his ticket to fame in the States, but it just wasn’t to be. When the Western began to grow in popularity, Wolff’s looks were perfect for cowboys and outlaws, and with great roles in films like Il Tempo degli Avvoltoi (Time of Vultures), Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), Un Dollaro tra i Denti (A Dollar Between the Teeth), C’era una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West), Ammazzalli Tutti e Torna Solo (Kill Them All and Come Back Alone), and Sono Sartana, il Vostro Becchino (I am Sartana, Your Angel of Death), he became one of the most sought after stars in Italy. Sadly, undiagnosed and, most likely, unrecognized mental imbalances plagued him throughout his life and when he thought his career was over for good, he took his own life. In a bizarre twist of irony, his last great performance in his final finished film after his suicide, Milano Calibro 9 (Caliber 9), would’ve cinched him a career in the Polizioteschi and Giallo films that were becoming the new trend.

Gordon Mitchell (1923-2003)

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One of the more impressive contemporaries to Steve Reeves in the world of bodybuilding, Gordon Mitchell was a no-brainer for playing legendary mythical heroes and hulking bad guys or henchmen in the world of films. After getting his start in one of Mae West’s beefcake night club shows, it wasn’t long before Hollywood sought him out for work as an extra. Most recognizable (you really have to look) as one of the guards who brings Charlton Heston before Yul Brynner and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, it was easy to tell he would land some sort of low budget Greek or Roman adventure film work. After the success of Steve Reeves’ La Fatiche di Ercole (The Labors of Hercules/Hercules), Gordon Mitchell, like many other bodybuilders, went to Rome to offer his services as mythical heroes, hulking villains, and generals in the Sword-and Sandal craze of the late 50’s, early 60’s. Roles in Il Conquistatore di Corinto (The Conquest of Corinth/The Centurion), Il Gigante di Metropolis (The Giant of Metropolis), Brenno il Nemico di Roma (Brennus, Enemy of Rome), and L’ira di Achille (Fury of Achilles) established him as a star. More of a natural actor akin to Lee Van Cleef, Mitchell had a presence that allowed him to convey menace or compassion depending on the role and quickly became a reliable genre character player. When the Roman Epics filtered out, the Westerns became the new stomping ground, and Mitchell’s looks were again needed for the hero or villain. With the Westerns, Mitchell leaned more towards baddies, thanks in part to his physique from bodybuilding, but was equally good at playing sheriffs, bounty hunters, gunmen, and loners with compassion. His work in 3 Colpi di Winchester per Ringo (Three Graves for a Winchester, 3 Bullets for Ringo), John il Bastardo (John the Bastard), Al di la della Legge (Beyond the Law), Thompson 1880, and Nato per Uccidere (Born to Kill) re-established his credibility and touted him as one of the few consistently working actors abroad. Unfortunately, his period with schlock filmmaker Demofilo Fidani, cited by many critics and fans as the Ed Wood of Italian Westerns and his descent into more exploitative fairs that were beneath his talents, made it impossible for him to branch into the Giallos and Polizioteschi his contemporaries began leaning towards. One saving grace of his time with Fidani is that he got to play some interesting characters, most notably a kind bounty hunter in Per una Bara Piena di Dollari (A Coffin Full of Dollars). After his retirement, he opened a gym in California, working daily until his passing.

Charles Southwood (1937-2009)

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While not as prolific as the above and soon to be mentioned, Charles Southwood carved himself a nice place in the world of cult cinema with his brief, but memorable appearances. Unlike his predecessors and contemporaries, Southwood went right into the Italian Western industry and immediately left a positive impression. His first film was Dai Nemici Mi Guardo Io! (I Protect Myself Against My Enemies), playing a man vying with some criminals for a stash of buried treasure. His second feature, Straniero…Fatti il Segno della Croce! (Stranger, Make the Sign of the Cross) with schlock filmmaker Demofilio Fidani, could’ve derailed his career, but unlike Gordon Mitchell, he was able to avoid being labeled as making poor films. At first an attempt was made to make him a Clint Eastwood knock off, having him play money hungry bounty hunters, but was quickly allowed to make his own mark. It was in C’e Sartana…Vendi la Pistola e Comprati la Bara! (Sartana’s Here…Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin) playing a poetry spouting gunslinger that he was able to win acclaim and found a niche playing sophisticated gunmen who seem awfully out of place in the Old West. He was able to repeat this style in Testa T’ammazzo, Croce…Sei Morto, Mi Chiamano Alleluja (They Call Me Hallelujah) playing a noble Russian Duke aiding a mercenary in finding a stash of gold for revolutionaries. Unfortunately for Southwood, his entry into the genre came right around the time the Westerns stated getting into Comedy elements and were losing steam, so his appearances were limited. He made a few crime films, in both Italy and France, and then quietly retired back to the States where he started a cigarette company that became infamous for its blunt honesty on the negative effects of smoking (including the skull and crossbones on the packaging!).

Brad Harris (1933-2017)

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Like Gordon Mitchell, Brad Harris’s muscular frame got him immediate attention for the sword and sandal epics of the early 60’s. Before making films, Harris was a star football player in college with initial aspirations to take charge of the family business, but found his athleticism could be useful in films. Ironically, it was while working as a stunt coordinator for Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus that Harris was asked if he was interested in working on Roman Epics. His appearances were limited, but his work in films like Goliath Contro I Giganti (Goliath Against the Giants), Sansone (Sampson), and La Furia di Ercole (The Fury of Hercules) were well liked, though only moderate in success. Unlike many of his contemporaries who garnered fame in Italy, Harris found success upon an impromptu trip to Germany (then West Germany, thanks to the Cold War), where he became a major star in the Kommissar X (Agent Jo Walker-Commissioner X) series with Italian actor Luciano Stella (who worked under the American name Tony Kendall), about a CIA Agent and his US Army Captain partner solving international crimes. He also appeared in Westerns: Die Flubpiraten vom Mississippi (The River Pirates of Mississippi), Die Schwarzen Adler von Santa Fe (The Black Eagle of Santa Fe), and Die Goldsucher von Arkansas (The Gold Conquerors of Arkansas), Action/Adventure: Der Schwarze Panther von Ratana (The Black Panther of Ratana), A 001: Operazione Giamaica (Our Man in Jamaica), and Weibe Fracht fur Hongkong (Mystery of the Red Jungle), and Crime Dramas/Thrillers: Das Geheimnis der Chinesischen Nelke (Secret of the Chinese Carnation). These vast other appearances made him a jack of all trades in Europe, doing almost every genre, including horror. While he did appear in some Italian and Spanish films as well, it is his work in Germany he is most known for, and where he’s still heralded as a popular character star today.

Robert Woods (b. 1936)

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Born to ranchers in Colorado, this true life cowboy didn’t at first look to be a movie star. After a stint in the Navy, his good looks were noticed by a talent agent and he began a fairly lucrative career in modeling. While in Europe on assignment, Woods was approached by an employee of Otto Preminger who wished to utilize him as an extra for a movie that never ended up being made. After doing a couple of theater plays in Paris and London, an Italian producer approached him about making a Western, which he first turned down, as he waited on the Preminger project. When the producer extended the offer to five films, Woods decided it was a better bet as Preminger’s offer soon went into limbo. Woods’ Westerns were more on the smaller budget end, and he rarely worked with equally big names in the genre, but his material was just as good. What set him apart from most of the American expat actors of the genre was his willingness to play a variety of different roles.  Soldiers, sheriffs, bounty hunters, outlaws, Mexicans – bandit or peon etc, he was open to it all. Three of his biggest hits were Black Jack, Quel Caldo Maledetto Giorno di Fuoco (Damned Hot Day at Dawn), and Il Mio Corpo per un Poker (The Belle Star Story). Black Jack is his most noted effort due to its dark atmosphere and that his protagonist character becomes just as evil, if not more so, than the men he is chasing for revenge. Il Mio Corpo per un Poker is a fictionalized, but not totally out of historical context, take on the life of female outlaw Belle Star and Quel Caldo Maledetto Giorno di Fuoco is mythical take on the invention and initial usage of the Gatling Gun, co-starring Canadian-Naturalized American character actor John Ireland. Sette (7) Pistole per I MacGregors (Seven Guns for the MacGregors) was another of Woods better noted fairs and was quite known for its action and the appearance of Italian Western stalwart Fernando Sancho as the main villain. While primarily a Western actor, he did appear in Horror, Action/Adventure, Thrillers, etc, but when much of the noted genres petered out in the 80’s, he entered into semi-retirement. He still acts occasionally in Independent films today.

Craig Hill (1926-2014)

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An interesting note to Craig Hill is that he had a successful TV series in the States before heading to Europe. The show was the Desilu production Whirlybirds where he played one half of a duo of helicopter company owners that rent their services to various jobs. He also appeared in the TV shows Death Valley Days and The F.B.I., and the Kirk Douglas film Detective Story. Despite his rugged looks that would’ve landed anyone else numerous Western, Crime, and Drama shows and films, Hill quickly fell out favor with both fans and producers, then found himself going to Europe like so many other hard-pressed American actors. Like Brad Harris, Hill found his fame outside of Italy, but for him it was Spain. His first overseas film was the Spanish Western Ocaso de un Pistolero (Hands of a Gunfighter), a variant of the timeless story of an outlaw gunfighter trying to straight, but destiny has other plans. Other noted films for Hill included Los Buitres Cavaran tu Fosa (And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave) and Tu Fosa Sera la Exacta….Amigo (My Horse, My Gun, Your Widow), among others. He did appear in many Italian Westerns as well, including Per il Gusto di Uccidere (Taste of Killing), All’ultimo Sangue (Bury Them Deep), Tre Croci per non Morire (Three Crosses Not to Die), 15 Forche per un Assassino (15 Scaffolds for a Murderer), and Sette (7) Pistole per un Massacro (Seven Pistols for a Massacre), though he was mostly working in Spain. At some point in the 70’s he moved permanently to Spain where he continued to work between there and Italy until his passing.

While their voices were never heard and dubbed over by Italian, German, and Spanish actors, these actors were still able to convey wonderful, entertaining, and powerful performances through body language and facial expressions. Denied notoriety in Hollywood, cult cinema lovers into Italian, German, and Spanish genre films have become adoring fans who will keep their memories and careers alive for a long, long time. The advent of DVD, Blu-Ray, VOD, and streaming has added to this permanent preservation.

all photos courtesy of google.com/images and their respective sites

For more information

IMDB/Wikipedia – Frank Wolff

IMDB/Wikipedia – Gordon Mitchell

IMDB/Wikipedia – Charles Southwood

IMDB/Wikipedia – Brad Harris

IMDB/Wikipedia – Robert Woods

IMDB/Wikipedia – Craig Hill

For further information, check out http://www.website.lineone.net and http://www.spaghetti-western.net

             

             

             

Filed under: Film: Actor/Actress Spotlight

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