Anthony Steffen may be a name best remembered by Spaghetti Western aficionados, but in his day, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Steffen was one of the most popular actors of the genre – at the time cheap B movies, now revered cult classics.
The handsome, Italian-born – actually at the Brazilian embassy in Rome – Antonio Luiz de Teffè von Hoonholtz began working in films as a studio messenger for Vittorio De Sica.
From there, Steffen began acting in sword-and-sandal epics, later moving onto the Western genre, where he found his niche. Unlike fellow Spaghetti star Clint Eastwood, however, Steffen never became a top international box office attraction.
Even so, he starred in several classics of the genre, among them Seven Dollars to Kill, Train for Durango, Killer Kid, and most notably, Sergio Garrone's Django the Bastard (a.k.a. Django the Avenger, The Strangers Gundown), in which Steffen plays a gunslinger returned from the grave to avenge his own death.
According to Daniel Camargo, co-author of Anthony Steffen (Matrix, 2007, in Portuguese), Django turned out to be the (uncredited) basis for Eastwood's better-known High Plains Drifter.
Steffen moved to Rio de Janeiro in the early '80s, where Daniel and fellow authors Fábio Vellozo and Rodrigo Pereira met with him. He would die of cancer at age 74 on June 4, '04.
I've known Daniel for a number of years. He's like a walking movie encyclopedia, being able to name all of Bryan Washburn's 1914 productions, every single Cannes film in competition (including in the sidebars) since the festival's inception in the mid-'40s, and the number of both sex scenes and stab wounds found in Sergio Martino's (excellent) The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.
Okay, so I'm exaggerating a tiny bit here. But Daniel's movie knowledge is mesmerizing. He has kindly agreed to answer (via e-mail) a few questions about the Anthony Steffen biography, which was published in Brazil in 2007.
Please, keep on reading…
Photos: Courtesy of Daniel Camargo.
Anthony Steffen: Killer Kid (middle); Shango, a sort of Shane meets Django (bottom)
Why Anthony Steffen?
You know, some lives must be made known. Imagine the life of a guy of one of the noblest families of Europe, whose mother was one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Italy (and former lover of one of Mussolini's generals), whose father was a charming bon vivant. He was also a Formula 1 pilot who was later appointed ambassador (for winning a race) by the Brazilian president at the time.
Also, at the age of 14 Anthony Steffen joined the partisans to fight the Nazis and his family lost everything in the war. So as not to starve, he found work as an assistant at the Italian studios. But when one of the actors did not show up for a call, he, thanks to his good looks, replaced the absent actor in front of the camera.
From then on, this guy was featured in all types of Italian films, from the neo-realist era to the early '90s. He dwelled among the great European stars and directors, and became the most prolific actor of Spaghetti Westerns.
So, this was the life of Italian-Brazilian actor Antonio Luiz de Teffè von Hoonholtz, better known as Antonio de Teffè, but immortalized on screen as Anthony Steffen.
Anthony Steffen, Richard Wyler, Salvatore Borgese, Two Pistols and a Coward (1968)
How did the book came to be? Is it supposed to be a biography, a detailed filmography, both?
Initially, it was not to be a book, but a documentary. Steffen, however, was very weak due to chemotherapy treatment; and vain as he was, he wouldn't allow himself to be filmed for that reason.
At first, my friend and co-author Fábio Vellozo found his name in the phone book. We wondered, “Is this Antonio Luiz de Teffè the real Anthony Steffen? There has been no news about him in years. He has just disappeared. Some say he's in Italy, some say he's even dead. Is that possible that a man who had such a career in Europe is living right here in Rio de Janeiro?”
That was Steffen, all right. Fábio gave him a call, and after months of talks, Steffen agreed to receive us. He was a very suspicious kind of fellow, and at first he thought we were thieves who were researching his life in order to rob him.
Later on, he became quite impressed with all we knew about his life and films, and eventually decided to take a chance on us. Then, a major friendship began.
Nobody had talked to him about his films in years and he was happy to know he still had a fan club! However, the cancer took its toll and our friendship lasted only two years. It was when another friend of ours, the journalist Rodrigo Pereira, came up with the great idea of writing about his life.
During our meetings with Antonio, we collected much information about his life. However, there were still many gaps, missing movies and inaccurate details. That was when our detective work began.
We looked around the world for anyone who had worked with or had known Antonio – and some of those were pretty hard to find. Among them were such names as Mark Damon, Elke Sommer, Antonio Pica, Ray Lovelock, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Enzo G. Castellari, Eduardo Fajardo, Jorge Rivero, Juan Bosch, Celso Faria, Edoardo Mulargia, Esmeralda Barros, Marilu Tolo, Stelio Candelli, Scilla Gabel, Gianni Garko, Dominique Boschero, and many others known and respected by Eurocult film admirers.
We investigated newspapers from various countries and read everything about him and Italian “popular cinema” from the '50s to the early '90s. Additionally, for a year and a half we worked on the text itself, written by the three of us. The experience was exhausting, but wonderful.
Now, we couldn't write about Antonio without giving attention to his films which were part of an important but underestimated aspect of Italian cinema. When I say “popular films,” I mean the ones that really brought in money, not artistic recognition. Antonio knew but did not work with Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti or Michelangelo Antonioni.
Anthony Steffen in Mario Bonnard's sword-and-sandal drama Aphrodite, Goddess of Love (1958)
Instead, Antonio would be normally associated with saucy comedies with Totò and Franco (Franchi) and Ciccio (Ingrassia), melodramas, gothic horror flicks, peplum (sword and sandals), gialli (violent erotic thrillers), polizzieschi (cop thrillers) and wip (women in prison) films, in addition, of course, to the genre that made him famous worldwide, the Spaghetti Western.
By learning about Antonio's life, you'll be able to see how all these genres began – their origins and predecessors – and what eventually became of them. All that plus some cool making-of stories and exclusive, new information.
Anthony Steffen in The Strangers Gundown / Django the Avenger (lower photo), which long predated Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter
How did Anthony Steffen get into the Spaghetti Western genre? What's his place in it? Did he star in any major films within that genre?
“Spaghetti Western” was a sort of pejorative term used to categorize the Westerns made in Italy. However, it later became an endearing way of classifying these films, usually made in co-production with Spain.
To sell the movies as American productions, actors and technicians were told to use English pseudonyms. (This trick had been in use since the '50s – for other genres as well; that's why it's so common to see “aka, also known as” in those people's filmographies.)
Also, sometimes the films would have a fading Hollywood star, as many of them went to Europe – where their names were still valuable – in search of better job opportunities. European producers would sometimes import young TV actors, among them Clint Eastwood, who became a star thanks to the director who is considered the greatest Spaghetti Western filmmaker: Sergio Leone (a.k.a. Bob Robertson).
Leone innovated the genre and created a new cinematic language that is much emulated and appreciated today. Previously, European Westerns merely copied the American ones with, generally speaking, their checkered-shirted heroes pitted against mustached villains dressed in black. Leone, for his part, stylized the genre visually, acoustically and musically, in addition to bringing a sense of amorality to his characters.
Leone's first film with Eastwood was A Fistful of Dollars (1964). It was a big hit and started a wave of films in the same style. So, producers went looking for actors similar to Eastwood and that's how Anthony Steffen made his first “spag,” Why Go on Killing? (1965).
I should add that this was Steffen's first Spaghetti Western, but not his first Western. That honor belongs to the German version of The Last of the Mohicans, in the US renamed The Last Tomahawk, in which Steffen played Hawkeye.
Germany had its own Western traditions, especially those based on Karl May's novels, which featured an Indian character named Winnetou. As a result of the success of those adaptations, Italian filmmakers began making their own films in that genre.
Antonio, for his part, didn't think too much of Eastwood and usually said that imitating him was quite easy: “All you have to to is to stand there and do nothing.”
Anyway, although Antonio's spags were considered “Bs,” he was in some that have since acquired a cult following, most notably Django, the Bastard (1969), which has a very similar story to that of High Plains Drifter (1973), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Both films are Westerns with supernatural overtones.
But of course, Antonio starred in many other well-regarded spags.
Anthony Steffen in Alberto Cardone's Seven Dollars on the Red / Seven Dollars to Kill (1966)
How does Steffen compare to fellow Italian Western personalities such as Terence Hill, Giuliano Gemma, Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero, and Lee Van Cleef?
As the spags were the most lucrative Italian film genre of the mid-'60s, the production of those films got really wild. They were usually shot in Spain, in Almeria, where the landscapes looked like Mexico; interiors were shot at various studios in Rome.
As you watch the different films, you start to recognize their location shoots, which is quite fun.
Shortly after the spag vogue began, the leading men became typecast according to a certain type of storyline. Of course, sometimes they would be cast against type, and many of them starred in films with respected auteurs such as Valerio Zurlini, Gillo Pontecorvo, Luchino Visconti, and others.
But when it came to the spags, if you wanted a handsome matinee idol, you would call Giuliano Gemma (a.k.a. Montgomery Wood); if you needed an experienced man with a past, Lee Van Cleef would be the best option. Franco Nero (a.k.a. Frank Black) would be cast as a violent and serious gunfighter; Gianni Garko (a.k.a. John Garko or Gary Hudson) would be the charming and seductive one, and so on.
Mario Girotti (a.k.a. Terence Hill) was a special case because his stardom came when the Spaghetti Western was fading away, so producers innovated the genre by adding strong comic touches. Those gave the spags a few more years as a moneymaking genre thanks to the Trinity series, which starred Hill and former champion swimmer and water polo player Carlo Pedersoli (a.k.a. Bud Spencer).
Anthony Steffen, Luisa Baratto in Leopoldo Savona's Killer Kid (1967)
As for Anthony Steffen, he was the one to call whenever you needed a bitter, lonely man driven by vengeance, condemned to suffer and to never get the leading lady at the end. As a matter of fact, few spag heroes had time for women.
On the other hand, the spags would often use several European character actors, just like Hollywood studios had done with their contract players who would play the same type of role in film after film.
The spag was a real industry and the films were sold all over the world, especially to poorer countries. But no one expected to see any of them at Cannes, Berlin or Venice.
Anthony Steffen, Sylvia Koscina starred in The Crimes of the Black Cat a.k.a. Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk
What happened to Anthony Steffen's career after the demise of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-'70s? Did he attempt to pursue other film genres or more “mainstream” work?
Before the Spaghetti Westerns, the “sword and sandals” films were the real box office hits. They would often use leftovers from every Hollywood biblical or historical spectacle, films such as Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, etc. Antonio appeared in Robert Aldrich's Sodom and Gomorrah – and he didn't have many good things to say about Stewart Granger.
Anyway, when that genre faded, the Spaghetti Western took its place. Now, in the early '70s, the spags slowly gave way to the gialli, violent erotic thrillers such as Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). The world gialli is plural for giallo, which means “yellow” in Italian. As most of the films were based on Edgar Wallace novels published with a yellow cover, the Giallo Collection, the films became known as gialli.
So, all that stock company of actors doing Westerns went to the new “genre of the moment.” Of course, new names appeared on the scene, but meanwhile all those old spag types were being violently murdered by mysterious serial killers that were only uncovered at the end of the movies, which also had plenty of sex.
Around that time, The Exorcist became a worldwide hit, so many devil possession rip-offs popped up – and the same happened with cop thrillers following the success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection. Italian cinema knew how to use a standard formula and exploit it to the utmost, at times reinventing it. Those were the mainstream films.
Anthony Steffen was always sought after; there was never a moment in his career when there wouldn't be a film project waiting for him. He was working all over Europe, which made him an absent father and husband. The poverty and suffering he experienced during World War II made him keep on working and making money, so he could always provide for his loved ones.
Anthony Steffen: Seven Dollars on the Red (top, 1966); Blood at Sundown (bottom, 1965)
Anthony Steffen died in 2004. What did he have to say about his oeuvre?
For a year and a half we were very close to him. He would not see his films again, even though there was a huge wall in his condo filled with posters. His widow gave us a few of them after he died. It was difficult for him to grow old, not be the same beautiful young man he had been – and his cancer was only making things worse.
At first, he referred to his films as only a way for him to earn a living, but as we became closer, he would open his heart about them. He liked the movies. He worked with Vittorio De Sica, whom he considered the best director he ever knew.
In addition to being an actor, Antonio wrote and even directed some parts of the films in which he starred. He was a trained actor who loved George Bernard Shaw and Pirandello, whose character he played on the stage.
In films, his most difficult part was the blind composer Peter Oliver in the delicious giallo The Crimes of the Black Cat (1972). Also, he was very afraid of horses and in each Western he had to overcome his fear in order to work. Once during filming a horse fell on him and he almost died.
Gunshots were not comfortable for him either. Those sounds brought back some dreadful memories of when he was fighting the Nazis. Odd things for a Western star, aren't they?
He tried to pretend that his films were not a big deal for him, that they were all part of the past. But he liked filmmaking and couldn't avoid a discreet satisfaction whenever he was recognized in the streets. It's too bad he couldn't see the book come out, as he died in 2004, three years before it was published in Brazil.
Anthony Steffen was a very down-to-earth man, and my co-authors and I believe he would have liked the book. Of course, he wouldn't have told us.
Any other book projects in the works?
We're now translating the Anthony Steffen biography into English. An American publisher expressed interest in the book, and since its subject still has numerous followers and admirers we believe the book could do well among English-speaking readers.
Antonio's films are being restored and released on DVD all over the world, and that has also stimulated our desire to make his life story available to as many people as possible. Since we've recently uncovered even more exclusive information about him, the English-language edition of the book will be even better than the one in Portuguese.
And finally, Fábio Vellozo and myself are currently working on another bio. This one is about the great Brazilian actress Monique Lafond [the sultry blonde star of titles such as Tropical Emmanuelle, Passion and Shadows, and Latin Lover]. As I said earlier, some lives must be made known and Monique's is an excellent illustration of that.