Obituary: Carlo Ponti

Rich and influential Italian film producer who ruthlessly promoted his wife and backed memorable movies
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday January 15 2007
A rigid application of the Guardian style guide caused us to say of Carlo Ponti in the obituary below that in his early career he was "already a man with a good eye for pretty actors ..." This was one of those occasions when the word "actresses" might have been used.

Although Carlo Ponti, who has died aged 94, was probably best known as the husband of Sophia Loren, he was also one of the leading film producers of postwar Italian cinema and and responsible for many internationally famous movies in which his wife not did appear, among them David Lean's Dr Zhivago (1965), Antonioni's Blow Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975) .

As a young law graduate from the Universita degli Studi in his native Milan, Ponti had two interests in life, women and money; it is not clear which attracted him to the film business. Future director Alberto Lattuada, then studying architecture, has recalled first meeting Ponti in Milan's most expensive brothel, where, while waiting to pick a girl, they talked about movies. Ponti asked Lattuada: "Why are all the film companies in Rome? Can't we make films in Milan?" "Why not try?" Lattuada replied.

Ponti's father was the managing director of a large Milanese firm, and Carlo convinced the boss's playboy son that it might be fun to make films. They set up a company with lots of capital but few ideas. Milan could provide the money, but the movie know-how was in the capital Rome, so they joined forces with Lux Film, another company founded in the north of Italy, in Turin, but which had recently found it convenient to move to Rome.

It was 1940, and the second world war was raging across Europe. The subject chosen by the new company was a literary classic, Antonio Fogazzaro's late 19th-century romantic novel Piccolo Mondo Antico (Small Old-fashioned World). The director was to be Mario Soldati, who had not yet won fame as a writer. Ponti, already a man with a good eye for pretty actors, persuaded Soldati to cast the rising young star Alida Valli (obituary, April 24 2006) as the lead. Lattuada was assistant.

The movie was a great success and, in spite of his Milanese film-making dream, Ponti accepted an offer to move to Rome to produce for Lux. Shortly afterwards, Dino De Laurentiis joined the team. They both produced films by the new generation of directors, but Ponti also produced several comedies with the popular Italian comedian Toto that made box-office gold for the company - and for him. Among the internationally successful postwar films the two men made under the Lux label were Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice (produced by De Laurentiis) and Luigi Zampa's To Live in Peace (made by Ponti). But in 1950, they left Lux and formed their own company. Their productions ranged from Rossellini's Europa '51 (1952) and Fellini's La Strada (1954) to the early successes of the new comic star Alberto Sordi.

When, in 1955, De Laurentiis decided to concentrate on English-language mega-projects like War and Peace, each man went his own way. At this point, Ponti's main concern lay in boosting the career of Loren, who had signed an exclusive seven-year contract with him. He had even cajoled Mario Soldati into directing her in La Donna del Fiume (The Woman of the River, 1955), which he had hoped would do for Loren what Bitter Rice had done for Dino's future wife, Silvana Mangano. All it did, in fact, was to provide some sexy pin-ups of Loren, and give Pier Paolo Pasolini one of his first scriptwriting credits.

It was during the making of this film that Ponti's relationship with Loren became something more than just a business investment. She was now 20; he was 24 years older. She had hardly known her real father, and was to repeat all her life that in Ponti she found a man who offered the kind of protective affection she had missed. But Ponti was already married with two children, a situation that was to cause problems for many years. In 1957, after his divorce in Mexico, Carlo and Sophia contracted a hasty marriage, but the Vatican and the Italian courts accused them of bigamy. Only in 1966, after they had both taken French nationality, did they marry legally.

As a producer, it was not to Ponti's credit that in his early years, although he launched many directors as well as stars, he had failed to help Fellini to get started. He had turned down the script of Luci di Varieta (Variety Lights), which Lattuada and Fellini brought to him, and would later produce and direct by themselves in tandem. Ponti also rejected the script of The White Sheik that Antonioni had written and hoped to direct, but which in the end would be Fellini's first film. Both Ponti and De Laurentiis claimed credit for having made La Strada, though many years later Fellini recalled it rather differently. "La Strada was made in spite of Ponti and De Laurentiis!" he said.

Ponti was executive producer of most of the films that Loren made for Hollywood between 1956 and the early 1960s. None of them were memorable, but they enhanced her star status. Ever since that first success in the 1940s with Piccolo Mondo Antico, her husband had been convinced that films adapted from great books would become great movies. It did not always work out that way.

It certainly did with Moravia's La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), which was to give him and Loren the greatest satisfaction of their careers. Strange as it may seem, Ponti's first choice as director was George Cukor, and for the role of the mother he wanted Anna Magnani, with Loren as the daughter. But Magnani laughed in Ponti's face, suggesting that Loren play the role and that they lower the age of the daughter. De Sica, who had, meanwhile, been hired to direct, liked the idea, and under his sensitive direction Loren gave the performance which was to merit her the Oscar.

In the mid-1960s, Ponti teamed Loren up again with De Sica as director for two popular Italian successes, Marriage Italian Style (1964) and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1965). In 1966, for MGM, he had a huge commercial success from another novel, Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. The critics were disdainful, but the public loved it. It won several Oscars, though not for director David Lean or for its producers. Apparently, Ponti had at first wanted Loren to play the role of Lara, alongside Omar Sharif. Lean resolutely refused to consider the idea, and the role went to the English actor Julie Christie.

In 1967 he produced Francesco Rosi's off-beat and perhaps underrated C'era una Volta (Cinderella Italian Style), which, at its world premiere in the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, saw Sophia hailed as a real-life Cinderella. Neapolitans, romantic but also pragmatic by nature, did not seem particularly surprised that her real-life Prince Charming was not the Omar Sharif of the film but a short, balding Milanese businessman.

Ponti miscalculated in 1962 with an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's play The Condemned of Altona, for which neither De Sica nor Loren were the right choices as director or actor. This costly fiasco damaged his reputation in Rome, causing further economic disaster for the film's ailing production company, Titanus. He did better, at least with the critics, when that same year he entrusted Godard with the adaptation of another Moravia novel, Il Disprezzo (Le Mépris, Contempt), filming it in Italy with everyone speaking their own language, French, Italian and English.

Under an agreement with MGM, Ponti produced three English-speaking films by Michelangelo Antonioni, two of which are among the director's best works, Blow Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975). The third film, Zabriskie Point (1970), shot in the US, was not well received but has since acquired a cult following.

In 1977, Ponti produced another Italian success, Ettore Scola's A Special Day, for which Loren and Marcello Mastroianni gained new acting laurels, though Ponti himself was furious when his wife did not win the best actress award at Cannes. The gossip columns at the time talked of bribes being paid to the festival, but nothing was ever proved.

Certainly, Ponti was not always regarded with sympathy in Italian film circles. He had a reputation for not paying last instalments of salaries. One of the legends on this score is that De Sica once told his wife María Mercader that she could have a new fur coat if she could get a last cheque Ponti owed him. She moved into Ponti's office and refused to budge until he forked up. In the end, he gave in.

Mario Monicelli never forgave Ponti for having sent Boccacio '70 to Cannes in 1962 without his episode, Ponti having preferred to show only those by the better-known international auteurs Fellini, De Sica and Visconti. Marco Ferreri had hysterical fights with him in 1964 over his film The Man With Five Balloons, starring Mastroianni, which Ponti re-edited himself and reduced to an episode in a film with other directors.

In recent years, Ponti left most of his company's activity in the hands of the son by his first marriage, Alex. He still kept an eye on Sophia's career and often accompanied her on her travels between their homes in Paris, Geneva and California, where they had a ranch. He was usually present to share in her triumphs, especially for the Life Achievement Oscar she received from the Hollywood Academy in 1992. When she was taken ill on a flight to New York in 1998, and was ordered to rest, he and their two sons went to the Venice film festival to collect her Life Achievement Golden Lion.

He is survived by Alex and a daughter, Guendolina, from his first marriage, and by Sophia and their sons, Carlo Jr, a musician, and Edoardo, a film director, whose careers he helped to boost.

· Carlo Ponti, film producer, born December 11 1912; died January 10 2007


John Francis Lane

The GuardianTramp

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