Tomas Milian: Not only spectators have big screen heroes

The actor, born on 3/3/1933, chose the Adidas sneakers with three stripes when creating his most famous character. (To escape quicker from the police, not for advertising purposes.) On the other hand, the introverted Milian wanted to run away, but from himself. Thus, he modeled this good-hearted criminal in accordance to whom he’d like to be. And it’s impressive that, 40 years after the fact, in Italy’s carnival, this figure continues to be chosen by big and small, and identifiable by everyone.

tomas milian monnezza english version

Recently, Empire magazine published an article on the 100 biggest characters ever in the movies. It’s quite predictable, mainstream and tedious; Indiana Jones, Darth Vader… The usual American billion dollar industry imposed on audiences throughout the decades. Without disagreeing with some choices, I don’t conceive cinema within the industry’s “imperialistic” confines and, as such, I decided to make my own list, which includes Indiana Jones, obviously, or The Tramp. And I came across one that deserves a special mention: Er Monnezza. 

It was back in 1976 that Tomas Milian, by then one of the leading talents of Italian and European cinema, came across this figure, in the script of Free Hand for a Tough Cop (Il trucido e lo sbirro). The script only called him “murderous” or “violent criminal”. “Sbirro” was the “cop”. Milian, known for being a great pain in the ass, who many only put up with since his films were usually box-office hits – and was talented as few -, had to make some changes…

tomas milian monnezza (2)

“Right away, I re-baptized him as Monnezza [Trash] and I also made up a look for him.” This consisted of heavy makeup, especially around the eyes: “This was because I express 99 percent of my emotions through the eyes. With a big wig, bearded and mustached, I ended up disappearing, cinematographically speaking.”

“Finishing with the face, I passed on to the wardrobe. As I wanted him to belong to the low working class, I opted for a simple and one-piece light-blue jumpsuit, that didn’t divide the body in two as it happens with pants, belt and shirt.” Milian almost considers Monnezza a separate entity of his. “Always young and fearless, like an inverted Dorian Gray.”

Non si sevizia un paperino (1972) com Barbara Bouchet.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) with Barbara Bouchet.

Il trucido e lo sbirro was received with enthusiasm by audiences, who ran to theaters. The signboards reading “sold out” and “no seats, only standing up” were frequent. The actor remembers that youngsters ran towards the first rows and mimicked Monnezza’s lines, “up yours!”, while the critics took notes with pens furnished with little lights in the blackness of the movie house.

In his autobiography, comparable to Sondra Locke’s or Ben Gazzara’s, Tomas Milian writes some funny but incisive dialogues, talking directly to his character or alter-ego. In one, he says:

“If you allow me, I gave you life, not for money but out of necessity.”
“And it’s not the same thing?”, “argues” Monnezza.
“No! What I told so far proves it. If later on, the money came, it meant the public enjoyed!”
“Like prostitutes?”
“Monne’, prostitutes sell sex, we sell laughs that are good for the heart.”
“Then we are the prostitutes of the heart!”
“Prostitutes, social workers or what have you, but the truth is that I made you exist to be able to revive the moments when I was small, and went with my father to collect the garbage of relatives and friends.”

This was a habit Milian had as a child, in Cuba. A kind of ritual. His father would commit suicide when Milian was 12 years old, with a pistol shot, at the very moment his son entered the room. So he saw it happen. The traumatizing situation created in him the need to become an actor, to be another person, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that, for him, it took a lifetime to reconcile himself with the bad memories of his father and with such a tragedy. If  “reconcile” is the proper word. 

In part, that’s why Monnezza’s character, as well as others in the chameleonic Milian gallery, assume the aura of a clown, in the correct and respectful meaning of the word.

The actor, then 43, thought he had created a bigger character than the film itself. The producers, obviously pleased, proposed him a new picture, but Milian only accepted if he was allowed to write his own lines. He also said that, in the initial credits, it should be stated: “Monnezza’s dialogues are by Tomas Milian.” “The producers didn’t care what the hell I would do, as long as I showed up 10 times during the movie.”

Gabriel García Márquez e Tomas Milian em 1974. Milian recusou ser fotografado com o escritor por não querer notoriedade à custa de outros. Aqui acedeu, visto que Márquez lhe pediu como favor ao fotógrafo.
Gabriel García Márquez and Tomas Milian in 1974. Milian refused to be photographed with the writer since he didn’t want notoriety at the expense of others. This time, he conceded, since Márquez asked him to, as a favor to his photographer friend.

Destruction Force (La banda del trucido) followed in 1977, directed by Stelvio Massi and with Luc Merenda playing the god guy. Merenda and Milian didn’t get along. “It was the typical giallo, with the good commissioner and the usual bad guy, but I only cared about Monnezza. Thus, it ended up becoming a film with two souls: The one of the cop thriller, with all its ingredients, and Monnezza’s, who made the story breathe and the public laugh.” The definition is on the spot; I watched it several times and don’t even remember Luc Merenda being in it. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Merenda didn’t like it…

On the first day, Milian arrived on the set very early since, before make-up, he had to finish writing a simple monologue taking place in the kitchen, where he explained the son (about two years old!) how rabbits finish in a world of wolves (a metaphor for marriage): Slaughtered. When the crew was about to shoot, Milian noticed they had forgotten the… rabbit.

He called production supervisor Marcello Mancini, who already knew Milian was a great actor, as well as an incredible pain in the ass…:

“Tell me everything.”
“I need a rabbit.”
“For?…”
“The scene in the kitchen.”
“As far as I know, that’s not in the plans.”
“The script mentions a baby bottle. But I want a rabbit, since I want to base my monologue on the rabbit.”
“Well, Tomas, it’s still 6:30. When the butchers open, I’ll tell someone to buy one.”

At 9:00, everything was ready. This is as bizarre as it is revealing: “Such miracles were  only possible in Italian cinema, since, if in American cinema one asks for something unexpected, all the machinery stops,” says Milian.

After shooting ended, Tomas Milian went on ahead to argue with the director in the editing room and, when he found out the rabbit scene was dubbed with some other monologue, he got angry. “So what, Tomas, nobody knows.” “I know!”

Brothers Till We Die (La banda del Gobbo) in which Milian plays both parts: Monnezza and Vincenzo.
Brothers Till We Die (La banda del Gobbo) in which Milian plays both parts: Monnezza and Vincenzo.

Brothers Till We Die (La banda del Gobbo) followed in 1978, where Monnezza, (the nickname of Sergio Marazzi) plays against his twin brother, Vincenzo, aka Il Gobbo or The Hunchback. The actor played both parts, which are total opposites. The Gobbo, who Milian had played for the first time in Rome Armed to the Teeth (Roma a mano armata) in 1976, was a more revolted criminal, and the actor wanted to express this anger towards the social injustices that had turned the character so vicious. (Although loyal to his brother.) Coincidentally, the actor was already addicted to cocaine (like the character) and one of the most frightful scenes derived from this, to the uneasiness of director Umberto Lenzi. The Hunchback goes to a nightclub full of rich people and, after being scorned by them, makes a speech, machine-gun in hand:

“Our biggest mistake, made by us, scum… No, we are not scum. We’re real sons of bitches, we’re despicable… is to steal, going around robbing people. And also to kill. So now we can see what you do, with all the money you waste in here… walking around to see who has the biggest jewels… then the mistake isn’t ours… it’s yours, you, who give a bad example, understand? And, if you give a bad example, then it’s your fault. And if it’s your fault, you must pay, understand?!”

The Hunchback forces the clientele to ingest a large dose of laxative…

Em la banda del gobbo (1978) em que representou dois papéis: Monnezza e o Gobbo.
In La banda del gobbo (1978) as The Hunchback.

“I had to give voice to The Hunchback’s pain and to the frustration of a lifetime. Deep down, he was also a part of me,” reflects Milian. The actor also justifies himself towards this character: 

“I had to believe in you, to find the reason for the anger in your past, since, in the script, it was described that you were evil without reason. To be able to become you, I had to give you a past life and discover how you became the outlaw you are. Before shooting the film, I wrote your biography, since the day you were born. It was useless to tell the director, he wouldn’t understand and he wouldn’t have changed the script.”

Milian says that he started “to love” these characters more than himself. Being a former student and member of the Actors Studio, as well as an obviously complex person, we’d have to go into areas like psychology and basic notions of acting. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that, if Milian had made his career during the 70’s in the U.S.A., he’d be as appraised as many great names with infinitely lesser talent. But, “the Cuban Roman” ended up making Rome… his home. This is also why many fans of Italian genre cinema don’t appreciate him in particular – he’s doesn’t “blend in” and “what’s original is obviously more difficult”, as John Cassavetes said.

Monnezza finished here, but his characteristics remained in the Nico Giraldi saga. Milian, due to his admiration for James Dean, was obsessed with his “American film”. During a  trip to New York, he watched Serpico with Al Pacino: “In my life, I never envied nobody, but that time I felt something very similar to that. Some months later, in Rome, I met producer Galliano Juso and director Bruno Corbucci.”

The producer wanted to make a Serpico-like film. “No way,” replied Milian. “It meant that the film would be, from the start, a by-product. They offered me a lot of money, but I couldn’t play a character in which I didn’t believe in, conceived as the imitation of another.”

Milian thought long and hard on the subject and phoned the producer: “I accepted, but with one condition. Let’s not do it a la Serpico. Let’s make a film based on a true story.” This was his own story: “Let us imagine that Monnezza goes to the movies to watch Serpico and he loves it. So much so that he prefers to be a cop than a thief. So, he becomes a police officer, using his expertise as a criminal. This way, several Serpico references would have to show up in the film.”

Squadra antiscippo (1976).
The Cop in Blue Jeans (1976).

It became the box-office hit The Cop in Blue Jeans (Squadra antiscippo). Tomas Milian didn’t want to change the name “Monnezza”, but, since it involved copyrights, it became “Nico Giraldi”. By then, the ties that bound Tomas Milian to Rome and the Romans deepened.

“The idiosyncrasy and the passion of the Romans, the fatalism and the generosity, the shrewdness and the wisdom were my shield in life. Even the foul words sounded to me as having no malice.” Although, by this time, according to his colleagues, like actor Massimo Vanni, Milian spoke an excellent Italian, the actor had decided (already during the creation of Monnezza) that the character had to have a Roman accent: “In the dubbing stage, Ferruccio Amendola, whom I chose personally for being very good, cancelled that accent of mine, that Cuban cadence that denounced me, to my distaste.”

O
The devoted “father” with his big screen “son”.

Bruno Corbucci gave Milan free reign to create “Monnezza’s world,” from the outrageous caps to the clothing. The actor recommended a friend of his, Sandra Cardini, to take care of the wardrobe. Her son, Paco Fabbrini, ended up playing Nico Giraldi’s son in all films of the series.

The actor had a good working relationship with Corbucci but started to get fed up with producer Juso, culminating in a quarrel during Assassination on the Tiber (Assassinio sul Tevere) in 1979. After a shoot that lasted all night long, Milian was exhausted. The producer appeared and told him the horse had arrived.

“Which horse?”
“The one from the adverts.”
“Which adverts?”
“For the film’s poster.”
“So what?”
“So climb on it!”

“I didn’t like his tone. He reminded me of my father. ‘Go climb on the horse yourself!’”

“I told you already, climb on the horse!”
“Look, Galliano, not only I won’t climb on the horse, but the next film in the series, no fucking way I’ll do it!”

“Today, I regret this. Moreover because I had sincere affection towards him. And what did he know concerning my father’s situation?”

Also essential in the success of the Nico Giraldi films was comedian Bombolo or Franco Lechner, who Milian met on the set of Squadra antifurto in 1976, and played Venticello, the inveterate but harmless robber, always loyal to Inspector Giraldi. The comedian passed away in 1987, and Milian always maintained that he wanted to be buried by his side, such was their friendship. He only changed his mind when his wife died, a few years ago; they were married since 1964.

 Of Bombolo, Tomas Milan says:

“He was exactly what he seemed: Tender, sincere, a friend of enormous talent. He supported life’s blows as he supported my slaps during filming. He had humble origins and I knew it had been hard for him to affirm his talent. At Franco’s funeral, I remained away, to give him his moment of glory, but when the body passed, in church, I hid myself behind a column and… then pam! I gave it a slap. It was my affectionate farewell slap.”

Fazendo tropelias a Bombolo em Delitto sull'autostrada (1982).
Giving Bombolo a hard time in Delitto sull’autostrada (1982).

The string of Nico Giraldi’s 11 films finished in 1984. The character had already become Tomas Milian’s shield against life and pain, as he describes it. The “symbiosis” with this figure, who was “better than him and also different”, started to cause the actor problems. In 1982, he played the lead in Identification of a Woman (Identificazione di una donna) by Michelangelo Antonioni. Today, it’s still said that Milian was the most sensible male protagonist in all of Antonioni’s films, but at the time, the actor didn’t want to accept the role, for which he was the first choice.

He told Antonioni he did popular films for big audiences, like the… Monnezza films. “And so what?” replied the director, surprised. “I watched all the Monnezza films and I love them! I laughed out loud!”

Taken by surprise, Milian accepted, also because in his personal life he was facing similar problems as the film director he plays. It’s one of the best performances of his career.

Filmagens de Identificazione di una donna de Antonoini (Abril de 1981).
Shooting Identification of a Woman by Antonoini (April 1981).

But his character chased him. “In short, I didn’t want my fans to see me as I was in real life, only as they knew me from the movies. I avoided leaving home. I stopped giving interviews so that my Tomas being did not interfere with the Monnezza being.” The character he was so proud of, started to destroy him, as he reveals. So he stopped with alcohol, drugs and devoted himself to the role that meant the most to him, the one that, during several years, he had neglected. To the question, “which role do you want to play, Tomas?”, he answered with “the role of a father”. When Robert Redford asked him about “future projects”, he answered, “retirement”. He understood he had said a “blasphemy”, judging by Redford’s pedantic look, the poor man’s actor. In the US you just can’t say that.

Tomas Milian says he repeats himself by stating this: “Tomas doesn’t please me, but Monnezza does. Tomas is vulnerable, naive, shy. Monnezza is courageous, wise, extroverted. The only thing we have in common is the sense of humor.”

Not only spectators have big screen heroes.

David Furtado

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