(During his self-imposed exile from the production of ATTILA, Quinn finally met Giulietta Masina's husband, Federico Fellini.)
Fellini was calling his picture LA STRADA - THE ROAD - and to him it was all about one man's bitter loneliness, and his rejection of the love and devotion of the one woman who would have him. I listened to Fellini's tale and for a moment thought he was talking about me.~I still did not know from neo-realism, but I liked the story well enough, and I was anxious to learn what all the fuss was about surrounding this looming giant of the Italian cinema. Fellini did not look like any giant, but he was an interesting fellow and he seemed to care about pictures. I told him I would gladly play the part of Zampano, the wandering strongman.
He asked me what my salary was and I told him.
"That's the budget for the whole picture!" he choked.
He was in no position to haggle, and neither was I. VIVA ZAPATA! had made me a star, and my stock was rising. Who knew how long I would be in demand? The trick, in pictures, was to get your price while you could, and take whatever you could get after that. It would be some time before I could make a picture just for the hell of it.
"Tell you what," he finally said. "I'll give you twenty-five percent of the picture."
I looked across the table at Fellini and smiled. He must have really wanted me for the role. No one had ever wanted me enough to give me a piece of the picture. Plus, I liked him, and I liked the story.
"Fine," I said, extending my hand. "Let's make a picture."
We very nearly had a deal, but for Dino De Laurentiis. I had not counted on him, but he surfaced soon enough. I was under contract to Dino at the time, and smack in the middle of the ATTILA shoot. Fellini wanted to begin production right away. The only way around the conflict, I thought, was to get De Laurentiis to bend a bit on his exclusivity clause, and to break my ass in the bargain.
I had it all figured out. In those days, Italian studios functioned under so-called French hours, which meant we worked from noon to seven o'clock in the evening, without breaking for lunch. Of course, the hours were sometimes shifted to accommodate an exterior shot requiring morning light, or a tight deadline, but the producers were usually good about sticking to the later schedule. It was quite a civil change for American actors accustomed to arriving on the set by seven or eight in the morning, but the Europeans - bless them all! - preferred to work later in the evening in exchange for a good night's rest.
What the French hours meant for me, and Fellini, was that I would be able to play the part of Zampano if he could arrange to shoot LA STRADA in the mornings. It was not an ideal situation for him - the picture was to be shot almost entirely outdoors, and he hated to give up all those daylight hours - but it was better than nothing. And it would not be ideal for me, working virtually around the clock for a stretch of several weeks, but I wanted to see if I was up to it.
It fell on me to extract De Laurentiis's approval.
"Dino," I explained, visiting him in his office the next morning. "I met a guy named Fellini, and he wants to make a picture with me."
"Fellini?" he said. "That no-talent? He's so full of shit I can't understand what he's saying. He wanted me to finance a picture of his, some nonsense about a circus, or a strongman."
"That's it," I said. "That's the picture. That's the one he wants me to make."
"Don't be an idiot, Tony. The man likes to put his wife in his pictures."
I chose not to remind Dino that his own wife, Silvana Mangano, was a fixture in several De Laurentiis productions. "What's wrong with that?" I asked instead. "I've worked with Giulietta before. She's quite good."
"She's wrong for the part. I'd rather use Gina Lollobrigida in that part."
He was talking like a producer. Gina Lollobrigida was wrong for Fellini's picture. "Look, Dino," I said, "I want to make the picture. I'll shoot the picture in the mornings and come to work for you in the afternoons."
"You can't do that!" he blustered. "We have a contract!"
"We do. That's why I'm here. I was hoping we could work something out."
What we worked out was that De Laurentiis and Ponti would finance Fellini's picture, in order to keep a tight rein on my schedule. It cost them $250,000, which was nothing next to the money they had already dropped on ATTILA. Plus, I convinced them it was a good investment. And it was. Dino and Carlo made millions on LA STRADA, and the picture established them as two of the most powerful producers on the international scene. Hell, it won them an Academy Award, as best foreign language film, when it was finally released in the United States in 1956, and as far as I know they never once thanked the director for his vision, or any of the actors for their performances - or me, for persuading them to invest in the picture in the first place.
But all of that was unimportant next to everything else. LA STRADA places Federico Fellini at the vanguard of the motion picture industry, and laid the groundwork for his extraordinary career. I squired him around Hollywood, after the American release, helping him to shop for a studio deal. The studio heads were leapfrogging each other to sign up the Italian auteur, offering him as much as a million dollars for his next picture - a phnomenal sum in those days. I translated for my friend.
"A million dollars," Fellini said, incredulous. "What for?"
"For a picture. Just to direct a picture."
"No," he finally said. "I can't. I can't direct an American picture. I would not know how to tell an American actor how to hold his cigarette."
LA STRADA vaulted me from respect as a supporting player to international recognition. It might have made me a rich man too - if I had held on to my piece of the picture. I had no idea the movie would have such an impact, even after it was in the can. I arranged a special showing for my agent and several friends, and when the lights came on in the screening room, everyone was scratching his head. No one could understand it, and I was so convinced the picture would be a flop that I let me agent sell my twenty-five percent stake for a lousy twelve thousand dollars, turning one of the best deals of my life into one of the worst.
Even when the dice rolled my way, I crapped out.