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GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: Bud Spencer – Europe’s spaghetti western hero

Italian actor and swimmer Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli) riding a horse in the film A Reason to Live. 1972 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images) - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on Bud Spencer, the Italian movie star and much-loved gunslinger.

On a wide, busy pedestrian shopping street in the south-east of Budapest there is a statue. Eight feet high in bronze, it depicts a burly, smiling figure in an open-necked shirt carrying a saddle on his shoulder with a six-gun sitting in a holster at his left hip. On the other side of the city a green space bears the man’s name: Bud Spencer Park.

During the Iraq War American soldiers and journalists arriving in Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit reported enthusiastic locals rushing out of their houses to greet them shouting, ‘Bud Spencer! Bud Spencer!’

The GIs were baffled because the name Bud Spencer meant nothing to them. It sounded like a name they should know, there probably aren’t many more American-sounding names than Bud Spencer, but none of them had any idea what the Iraqis were talking about. One reporter was even told by a Tikrit resident the only Americans he’d ever heard of were George W. Bush – and Bud Spencer.

For a man who came to personify the American West for Iraqis, Hungarians and in many other nations around the world Bud Spencer was in fact about as American as the Bay of Naples. That’s where Carlo Pedersoli was born and raised. He would adopt the name Bud Spencer to add authenticity to his roles in the spaghetti westerns in which he starred during the 1960s and 1970s, Bud coming from his favourite American beer and Spencer a tribute to his movie hero Spencer Tracy.

A huge man, six feet four and as wide as a house, Spencer’s most successful films were the string of action comedies he made in partnership with the small and slight Terence Hill, aka Mario Girotti from Venice, the pair becoming household names in countries where English wasn’t the first language. In Germany, for example, they were massive.

‘When I went to the Berlin Film Festival one year 8,000 people turned out to see me,’ he said. ‘Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman? 200.’

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, the year of Spencer’s death, when an interviewer compared Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys to Spencer and Hill, the Australian visibly brightened. ‘Dude, now you’re talking!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s a really flattering compliment.’

There was far more to Carlo Pedersoli than the grunting, villain-bashing, gunslinging galoot of his screen persona. He had a law degree, became a qualified commercial pilot, founded a freight-carrying airline, made documentaries, wrote lyrics for popular Italian singers, registered patents for a number of inventions and was one of the greatest competitive swimmers Italy ever produced.

Born into a wealthy Naples family, Pedersoli excelled at school academically and on the sports field and was barely 17 when he embarked on a degree in chemistry at university in Rome. However, with the post-war Italian economy in the doldrums Pedersoli senior accepted a job in Brazil and took his family with him.

Carlo worked first on an assembly line and then at the Italian consulate, where he developed a taste for legal matters and returned to Rome to study law. Extracurricular activities competed for his attention, not least in the swimming pool. He played water polo for the prestigious Società Sportiva Lazio Nuoto and became the champion of Italy in individual freestyle and relay teams. In 1950 he became the first Italian to swim the 100 metres freestyle in under a minute.

What made his success even more remarkable was that he wasn’t really trying. He rarely trained, was a heavy smoker and reflected later in life that if he’d actually practised and taken better care of himself he could have been one of the top swimmers in the world. Despite an ambivalent attitude to training he managed to put down his cigarettes long enough to reach the semi-finals of the 100 metres freestyle at both the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games.

An emigration to Venezuela put an end to his swimming career. He worked on the Pan-Pacific Highway then took a job in Caracas with Alfa Romeo. It was as if he couldn’t settle on what he wanted to do and he would remain restless his entire life, trying different things, looking to find something to fulfil his intellectual curiosity even if he thought it lay on the other side of the world.

In the end it was romance that took him back home. He’d known Maria Amato since they were children and they were always close. She was the daughter of Giuseppe Amato, producer of The Bicycle Thieves, and Pedersoli’s earliest screen roles had been the result of Maria’s cinematic connections. When there was a small part for a big man Pedersoli was happy to oblige: among his earliest, fleeting roles was as a hulking member of the Praetorian Guard in the 1951 epic Quo Vadis. The longer Pedersoli spent in South America the more he found himself thinking about Maria and by 1960 he was back in Rome and married.

Despite his regular screen appearances, not to mention the range of other careers in which he’d dabbled, Pedersoli never really considered acting a viable option until his late thirties. He became tangentially involved with the industry, producing documentaries for the Italian national broadcaster RAI and composing songs for soundtracks, but it took until 1967 and the spaghetti western Dio perdona… io no! (God forgives… I don’t!) for Pedersoli to finally focus his ambitions on the cinema. Dio perdona… was where he first met Girotti, the pair’s screen chemistry so instant and obvious they were signed up for a string of further projects. Bud Spencer was born.

Spencer and Hill’s most popular films were the Trinity series beginning in 1970 with Lo chiamavano Trinità (They Call Me Trinity), a spaghetti western in which Spencer and Hill help a group of Mormons to fight off a bunch of nefarious bandits. It was riproaring, fast-paced and became Italy’s biggest-grossing film of the year. Not bad considering Spencer couldn’t ride a horse. In addition, his Neapolitan accent was so thick his voice had to be dubbed even for Italian audiences.

The pair would appear in a dozen films together, each following the same basic formula of saving innocents from bad guys with little in the way of meaningful dialogue but plenty in the way of violence. Rife though it was, the violence was more slapstick than bloodthirsty, owing more to Laurel and Hardy than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and could be transplanted easily to more than just westerns. Among Spencer’s film credits are titles such as Banana Joe, Watch Out, We’re Mad!, and I’m for the Hippopotamus: whatever the subject, no matter how obtuse the title, the formula propelled Spencer to huge fame and wealth enough to indulge the restless spirit that still dwelled within him.

When filming …più forte ragazzi! (…All the Way, Boys!) in Colombia in 1972, for example, Spencer spent so long in the air for his role as a pilot he convinced himself he could actually fly a plane. During a break from filming, with the crew and cast preoccupied with lunch, he climbed into the pilot’s seat, pointed the small aircraft up the runway and somehow managed not only to take off but also to land safely. He went on to obtain a pilot’s licence and in 1984 founded Mistral Air, a successful charter airline he later sold to the Italian Post Office.

In 2005 he took it upon himself to enter politics, standing in Rome for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in a regional council election.

‘There are only three things I haven’t been: a ballet dancer, a jockey and a politician,” he said. ‘The first two are out of the question now so I’ll throw myself into politics instead.’

He lost the election but he wouldn’t have minded too much. Serving a fixed political term wouldn’t have suited him; he was always looking for the next thing.

Spencer’s was a mind permanently on the move with little time for introspection. It was perfectly suited to the breakneck-pace films he made whose success permitted him to indulge himself in the next thing to take his fancy. Buying a tugboat, say, or taking out a patent for a toothbrush that came ready-primed with toothpaste.

‘When the Eternal Father calls me, I’m keen to see what happens next,’ he said shortly before his death. ‘If there turns out to be nothing I’m going to be very angry with him. Why would you make me get up every morning for 86 years for nothing?’

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