GUNSLINGERS, CANNIBALS, AND MORE...
An Interview with Donal O´Brien
There are some faces that you instantly recognize when you spot them in a movie, even if the names connected to these faces wouldn´t ring a bell. Spaghetti fetishists all over the world (and our numbers are growing, so watch out!) are particularly notorious for their all-embracing love for Italian cinema, without regard to the quality standards of the films in question. The bourgeois feudality of Luchino Visconti´s movies goes hand in hand with the splatterfests of the recently deceased Lucio Fulci. This doesn´t necessarily mean that these guerilla cinephiles are suffering from a serious lack of taste. Their strange mix of appetites reveals the true essence of making films in this hot-tempered region. There is nothing like a crew of hard-working individuals trying to stomp movie magic out of the barren soil of the seamy underbelly of Italy´s small movie industry. American actors like Fred Williamson or Bo Svenson, who have worked in the Mediterranean, know a thing or two about this. You want a film that competes with the latest Spielberg production at the box office? You only have a handful of Lire to spend? Well...no problem. Enter the likes of Joe d´Amato, Enzo G. Castellari, Sergio Martino - their inventiveness have made for many great movie experiences. This has changed now, as the Italian production circumstances have altered dramatically. Even Castellari´s breath-taking western JONATHAN OF THE BEARS struggled to find a distributor even in Italy. The spaghetti genre cinema is history. So they say.
Back to those faces. One face you´re not very likely to forget is that of Donal (sometimes misspelled "Donald") O´Brien, one of the unsung heroes of Italian exploitation cinema. He was the bad guy in so many Italian western movies, from Sergio Sollima´s seminal CORRI UOMO CORRI to Castellari´s KEOMA. He entered the horror stakes with films like EMANUELLE E GLI ULTIMI CANNIBALI by that great maestro of spaghetti sleaze, Joe d´Amato. He was DR. BUTCHER M.D. and as such responsible for many dubious brain transplants and removal of vocal chords. And he appeared in many action movies by the most prolific directors around.
Only few people know that this great person has been in many French and international productions as well, starting with Anatole Litvak´s ACT OF LOVE with Kirk Douglas, up to THE NAME OF THE ROSE, the film adaptation of Umberto Eco´s cloister whodunit.
When I met this man, it was in one of those lovable, colorful bars that you can find in the streets of Rome. These places are usually swarming with life. And so, during our talk, I saw myself surrounded by many outrageous characters, like that guy Mario, who used to be a smuggler and who, now and then, interrupted our conversation by presenting us his heart-warming interpretation of Anna Magnani songs! There was Luigi Bassetti, the dynamic bartender, who has more feeling for cinema than most German intellectual dipshits can hope to achieve in a lifetime. This was a place where life takes bizarre and exciting forms, where Japanese rubber dolls called "Yoko" play the first tunes of "Madame Butterfly". This was the place where movies are made. This was Rome. Buon giorno, cari amici. Step in, folks, and hear the life story of Donal O´Brien, Irishman and actor!
Donal O´Brien saw the light of day in France in the year 1930. His father was an ex-United States Marine cavalry officer, "in the horse cavalry, in the original sense". He fought in the Spanish-American war and got wounded. "My father was a magnificent Irishman with a Barrymore profile and the physique of a boxer." One of thousands of Irishmen who left Ireland in the middle of the 1800s, he returned to Ireland with the pension he got from the army, sold the family farm and went to the South of France, "because of the beautiful climate", to a place called Pau, near the Pyrenées. That´s where Donal was born. His mother was an English girl who was working down there as some kind of a tutor. But they wouldn't stay there for long. The restlessness of the first years is something that Donal was to experience through most
of his adult life.
The next domicile, in the North of France, turned out to be a marvellous house on the cliffs, with a little beach. When Donal was going through his days of childhood, World War II raised its ugly face and ruined everyone's life. One brother, an RAF pilot, was killed.
Next station was Dublin, where he went to a crammer school, concentrating chiefly on the final exam. In the autumn of 1948, he sat for his matriculation, but failed in mathematics. So there was the choice: Another year of soporific work to get a first-class ticket to university. Or something completely different. "Because I was stupid, I said, To hell with it, and I joined a drama school." It was a ridiculously little school, which was first run by a very clever woman, but she soon was replaced by "a nitwit, who had read a few books on the Actor's Studio and was very much into analysis, instead of teaching us how to walk and talk!"
He had some leading roles during that time, but only on a very small scale. The scale became considerably bigger, when he joined the Dublin Gate Theatre, "where Orson Welles had started. Very few people know that he started in Dublin, most people think it was the Mercury in New York. James Mason, Peggy Cummins, Edward Mulhare - they all used to work for the Gate Theatre. My father was extremely furious when he found out that I was wasting my time being an actor. He also got wind of the fact that the star of the production was one of the biggest queens alive. He also played the part of Jago in Orson Welles' OTHELLO. This really didn't help. He cut my money off."
That said, it has to be stated that Luigi and the others gave strong hints of being people who indulge in wild frivolous games of sensual abandon, wearing mini-skirts and doing lewd things to each other. Also, the exact sex of the rubber doll, Yoko, was also a matter of controversy. More on this in later issues.
At the Gate Theatre, Donal did some bit parts which were nice but no cigar. He became dissatisfied with his acting work and, once more, he changed his locale. In France, he found office work in the US army. Before that, he had also been in a boxing club, where a fellow much shorter and much heavier than he broke his nose and "beat me into a pulp". Another encounter with the roughhouse aspects of bohemian life took place in a bar at Place Pigalle, where a German all-in wrestler got him into a fight. "He kicked me all over the place. This was a strong sonofabitch..."
At the age of 23, he had a small part in Anatole Litvak's war drama AN ACT OF LOVE. In this story of a GI who falls in love with a girl who is rounded up by the police under the suspicion of being a prostitute, he only had one word of dialogue, which wasn't much by anybody's standards. Not what you'd call the initial spark of a film career. Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience, and it gave him an idea of what big film productions looked like.
Another glimpse of Hollywood proficiency at work was offered when John Frankenheimer gave him the small but memorable part of an SS Feldwebel in THE TRAIN (1963) with Burt Lancaster. "Now that was a guy, terrific. I've worked with some Hollywood actors, but he was worth all of them. He used to be a circus acrobat. He had this marvellous physique, and while other actors would choose to act like primadonnas when it came to dangerous scenes, Lancaster would do most of the stuff himself. And he was a friendly guy, always helping us little-knowns when we had problems. This was one of my first more important parts and I was very unsure of myself. He was always telling us what we could do to improve our stuff. A great guy."
John Frankenheimer seemed to be impressed by Donal's performance (the chance to play a Nazi was offered him more than once in his later career). So he gave him a more elaborate part in his all-star Formula-1 drama GRAND PRIX (1966), starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. There were also some Italian actors in it, like Antonio Sabàto, an actor who later became very well known in Italy in tough action pictures. According to Donal, he was a favorite with the girls - no wonder, as Antonio is quite a good-looking guy.
Working with the big, Donal made very different experiences. James Garner stroke him as "a very good-looking fellow, all the girls went crazy for him, and a good actor at that, but he, like others I used to work with, seemed to be self-conscious and nervous, for no discernible reason. I mean, these guys were famous and successful. But they often behaved like little girls when it came to things like, Why is he getting a longer close-up and I don't, stuff like that. I mean, this may be important when this one close-up is all the screen time you have, but they are the leading players, so why do they behave that way? I never understood that..."
There was also a nice little anecdote about an actress who was supposed to be the leading lady. "She never had eyes for me. Hell, she wouldn't even talk to me, after she'd found out that I was just an unimportant actor. Good grief! Then, this is what happened: We were sitting in the foyer of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. She, myself and Antonio. Then an assistant director crossed our path. That actress was trying to get him to take us to the theatre where they were showing the rushes of the day before. After some discussion, she persuaded him. He said: `Be quiet, I'm gonna lose my job...' So we hid in the balcony, looking down, where that wonderful director Frankenheimer was sitting. After some minutes of racing cars, finally her scene came, and she was doing a phone call - she was playing a sophisticated magazine editor -, and suddenly you could hear the director, who had this loud, resonant voice, howling in rage, because he didn't like her at all. `Oh my God, she's awful! She can't walk, she can't talk, look at her hair!' So he turned to that faggot hairdresser, who was like Katherine the Great, and this guy said: `Well, usually she plays this peasant types. I don't know why you cast her for this role in the first place!' And remember, this actress was sitting there with us, and she nearly went crazy! She was squirming with embarrassment. This is an actor's nightmare, you know. The next day she was fired." Sorry - I won't tell you her name...
Before that second Frankenheimer movie, Donal could be seen in Claude Chabrol's LA LIGNE DE DEMARCATION. In this film, Jean Seberg - on whom a documentary has just been released that throws new light on the strange circumstances of her premature "suicide" - plays an officer's wife who lives in France. She helps to hide prisoners. Donal played an RAF pilot.
The next film he acted in was TROIS CHAMBRES A MANHATTAN (1965), by that great master of French cinema, Marcel Carné. "Carné used to behave like a hysterical maniac. I had a small part in that film. Maurice Ronet and Annie Girardot were also in it. He was screaming like a maniac. But he was a masterful director. LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS is one of the greatest films ever made." The film was made from a novel by Maigret inventor Georges Simenon.
In the same year, he also worked together with Jean-Paul Rappeneau (CYRANO DE BERGERAC with Depardieu), on LA VIE DE CHATEAU.
In Yugoslavia, he was working for Jean Dréville in his movie LAFAYETTE.
Then it was his turn to go to Italy to participate in the Western craze that was already on a downward motion. It was 1967. The film, CORRI UOMO CORRI, is one of the three all-time classics of the Spaghetti Western that Sergio Sollima did with Tomas Milian, the other two being LA RESA DEI CONTI and FACCIA A FACCIA. In this epic movie, Donal plays an American soldier of fortune who is after the same revolutionary gold as that plebeian hero Cuchillo, one of Milian's most famous characters. This movie provided Donal with one of his best roles ever. It took him some years to find a part that would be in the same league. "Sollima was considered to be the intellectual among the Western filmmakers. I enjoyed working with him. He was a very intelligent and gifted man." According to Donal, actor Frank Wolff made a documentary with a director called Morell, called THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN, where they talked a lot about Sollima. People interested should try to track it up and drop me a note.
Of course, the misspelling of his first name was almost mandatory in Italy. "On one occasion, I tried to cash in the pay check, and they wouldn't give me the money, 'cause the check was for one `Donald O'Brien'. So I had to go to the Embassy and have my passport corrected, with `Donald' in parentheses."
1971s SE T'INCONTRO T'AMMAZZO was only the first of a handful of low-budget horse operas where Donal could be seen, mostly as the villain or undervillain. In this rare instance he plays the hero, the brother of Gordon Mitchell ("he weighed 220 pounds when he did these muscle pictures, and he went down to 160 pounds for this movie, like nothing"). Gianni Crea directed.
In the same year he made IL TREDICESIMO E' SEMPRE GIUDA with Giuseppe Vari, who began with some quite good historical pictures, but then ended up with some cheesy actioners and sex movies in the seventies. Tom Weisser says that Donal plays "a crusty lawman-turned-bounty hunter searching for...a sadistic outlaw played by squirrelly Dean Stratford."
QUELLE SPORCHE ANIME DANNATE and LA COLT ERA IL SUO DIO (1972) are two movies obviously shot back to back by Luigi Batzella, who also worked under the pseudonyms Paolo Solvay, Dean Jones and Ivan Kathansky. In both miserable films, Donal plays villainous types that try to mess with good guy Jeff Cameron. Much material is used in both movies, although the plots differ. In one of the films, Batzella himself plays a scumbag. No wonder, as he started as an actor. He then went on to do some sexploitation films, the zenith being IL PLENILUNIO DELLE VERGINI, a horror movie with Mark Damon and Rosalba Neri, the nadir being KAPUT LAGER, a "naziporno". He even provided dubbing jobs for hardcore porn movies!
More or less around the same time, mystery director Franco Lattanzi made two movies with Donal. The first is IL GIUSTIZIERE DI DIO, with William Berger. The other one doesn't appear in any source book. This movie, that pits evil town boss O'Brien against revenge-hungry Robert Woods, has been released in Germany. Donal thinks the original title is something like SEI BOUNTY KILLERS PER UNA STRAGE. Both films are incredibly shoddy, but real Italo aficionados will want to see them anyway! True love conquers all.
A slight turn towards the better was indicated by Mario Sabatini's LO SCERIFFO DI ROCK SPRING (1973). Not because of the movie itself, but because this is where Donal met Richard Harrison, who he claims to be "one of the nicest American actors I have worked with". Seemingly, the rapport was very good because Harrison asked him to play his brother in the well-made film JESSE E LESTER DUE FRATELLI IN UN POSTO CHIAMATO TRINITA', made by one-time director Renzo Genta (who also worked on the screenplay of Deodato's jungle muncher ULTIMO MONDO CANNIBALE). In this film (which was co-scripted and produced by Richard Harrison himself), Richard plays some sort of Wild West Casanova, who collects unwanted pregnancies like other people collect stamps. He and his bible-thumping brother make an inheritance. Richard wants to build a whorehouse with it, Donal wants a church. Desperadoes steal the money, with the expected consequences. Cross and double-cross, very entertaining and most recommendable. Don't expect Leone, though.
In 1973 Donal also made one of his first non-westerns, IL SESSO DELLA STREGA, a very strange horror movie that deals with a masked killer who roams a country mansion full of heirs to a large fortune. Some blood, lots of sex and good cheap thrills. Elo Pannacci•, the director, then went on to do some porn movies in the eighties, some of them using the pseudonym "Angel Valery". "I remember that this production was so cheap we were thrown out of the hotel we were staying at. Believe it or not, we realized that each one of us would have to pay for himself! They sure had money trouble." Camille I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Keaton was in this movie, with a bondage style sex scene. "She was very nice, but I remember, when we talked to each other, she behaved like a verginella, a little virgin, you know, always avoiding sex in conversation. She did sex movies, you say?" Yes, she did. God bless her for that. Donal, by the way, plays the investigating police inspector.
In 1974 he played a part in Lucio Fulci's IL RITORNO DI ZANNA BIANCA, the second one of Fulci's great versions of Jack London's WHITE FANG. Franco Nero and Virna Lisi starred in both movies, with John Steiner playing the villain. "He was a good actor, but we didn't get along well. I am Irish, he is British, maybe that's why..." Also in this movie was actor Raimund Harmstorf, who had become very popular on German TV as Jack London's SEA WOLF. "An incredibly good-looking guy. He used to be a Decathlon athlete, I think. These people have the best physiques because they have to do everything, run, jump, throw weights."
When I told Donal some time after the interview that Fulci had died, he was honestly shocked. He liked him a lot. "He was a great director. Many terrible things happened to him in his life. He was rather unlucky. I have always enjoyed working with him greatly, as he was a truly original human being with a great love for cinema."
The next time he worked again with Fulci was in 1975s I QUATTRO DELL'APOCALISSE, a small western masterpiece, where Fabio Testi and three other prisoners are freed when a whole town gets massacred by bandits. On their journey, they also meet a sadistic gunfighter played by the great Tomas Milian. Michael J. Pollard is also in this one.
While working on this film, Donal met Fulci's little daughter, Camilla, always riding on a horse. When he met her again three years later, on Fulci's SELLA D'ARGENTO, he accidentally hurt her when he tried to say hello. "She was about 15 or so at the time. I tried to remind her of her riding along the set. She looked very strange, when I said that. A stuntman led me away and showed me that the lower half of the poor girl's body was paralyzed because of a riding accident, just like that of Christopher Reeves! She was such a lovely girl. It made me feel very bad that I had said that."
Also in 1975, he did a movie called GIOCHI EROTICI DI UNA FAMIGLIA PERBENE. This film, which Donal considers to be very minor, was begun by the producer, then finished by his assistant, who had worked for some famous directors before. Francesco degli Espinosa was the name of the second director. Wonderful Erika Blanc was in it, too. "This was one of these sex flicks where the cameraman always measures the distance between the camera and your crotch, which makes for a very strange working atmosphere."
Asked for his heroes, Donal told me: "William Butler Yeats, Michael Collins, André Malraux, Maurice Ravel, Giorgio Di Cirico, Laurence Olivier and Max Schmeling. And of course the great Douglas Baader, the war pilot who had no legs. When he was captured by the Germans, they allowed the British to parachute his steel legs. And he escaped! So, I don't care about The Merry Wives of Windsor, but talk to me about Douglas Baader!"
First we talked about ZANNA BIANCA ALLA RISCOSSA, Tonino Ricci's 1976 spin-off on Fulci, where Donal and Luciano Rossi, Italy's favorite psycho actor, tried to get the better of Maurizio Merli and his dog. Donal remembers Rossi with warm feelings. "He was strange, albeit in a very friendly way. I remember an incident, when the two of us were going downtown, and he suddenly had to stop at the post office. He wrote out a big cheque for a society for the prevention of cruelty against animals. And the day before he had declined an offer to get a bigger suite at the hotel because he didn't like the thought of spending so much money for himself. That's a very nice twist in the story, I think." Rossi also was in Sollima's CORRI UOMO CORRI and JESSE E LESTER.
And then along came Enzo G. Castellari, with his best film to date: KEOMA (1976) is as much atmospheric mystique as it is bone-crunching action entertainment of the very first order. In this movie, Donal played the evil Caldwell, the employer of Keoma's brothers. Much has been written on this movie; if you haven't seen it, you should check it out and see why. Donal shared my opinion that Enzo Girolami is a wonderful director, a forceful, energetic man with a genuine feeling for rhythm and pace. In this film he also revealed himself to have a poetic strand.
Having worked with him before on the Shaw Brothers co-produced crossover mess KUNG FU NEL PAZZO WEST (1973), Donal remembers William Berger quite well, although he also had some problems with him. "This was a guy who had everything. He was handsome, knew how to act. He could have gone all the way to the top. But he got mixed up with drugs. I got a couple of parts because he was busy or he was arrested. When I made that Crea film, Berger had just been arrested because somebody had left drugs in his place, on the Costa Amalfi. His wife died in prison. I didn't get along with him because he was too hippy or what they call it, and I'm square! I don't drink, I don't smoke, and that's the way it is...But I knew so many psychedelic sophisticates in the early 1950s in Paris, that I just have my problems with them."
Patterned after the successful KEOMA, was Sergio Martino's atmospheric MANNAJA (1977). In the very first sequence, Donal has his hand chopped off by axe-wielding Maurizio Merli. "I can't remember how they did this effect, but it looked awful! One of the girls said to me that I was made of steel because Maurizio dragged me through the rain with the rope around my neck. That was tough indeed. Poor Maurizio died some time after that in a tennis accident."
One of Donal's best-known roles is that of the white hunter in Joe d'Amato's EMANUELLE E GLI ULTIMI CANNIBALI (1977). He stumbles upon journalist Laura Gemser's expedition and accompanies them, together with his nympho wife Susan Scott. There are some scenes when he peeps on his wife's sex orgies. In the end he first has to witness his wife's ritual evisceration by the hands of uncharming cannibals. Then he is torn in half; a very persuasive dummy effect. As usual, Laura Gemser is accompanied by her real-life husband Gabriele Tinti, who died in the late 1980s. "Laura was a very quiet woman, très réservé, but not in a snobbish way. She was very, very lovely. I worked together with her again, on Aristide Massaccesi's (=d'Amato's) RITORNO DALLA MORTE, a Frankenstein movie made in 1992. She worked as a costume designer. This was another instance where I said something wrong: I told her how terrible it was that Tinti was dead, him being such a nice man...She had to rush out of the room because she was overwhelmed by her feelings for Gabriele."
GLI ULTIMI CANNIBALI, incidentally, was not shot on the Amazon, although it looks very authentic. Near Rome, there is an artificial jungle called "Croce Verde", which Mussolini had built, with many trees that you can only find at the Amazon. "A guy once told me, I didn't know you went to South America. I said, I've never been to South America. But I saw you in a film, with snakes and every damn thing...That was Croce Verde."
In the same year, he also played a Nazi swine with very incompetent underlings in Marino Girolami's KAKKIENTRUPPEN. The title is somewhat strange. It is meant to be mock German, with the reference to Khaki, but also with a definitive nuance of the Italian "cacca", which means "shit". The film is sometimes hilarious, but very Italian in its appeal. The frantic farce is interlaced by truly disturbing gore bits, like organs jumping out of bodies. David Cronenberg meets The Three Stooges, one might say.
In 1977, Donal also played a cop in Gianfranco Parolini's YETI, a hard-to-resist KING KONG rip-off starring Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella). "The leading lady of this film happened to be Antonella Interlenghi, the daughter of Antonella Lualdi. The girl very obviously inherited her mother's beauty, but she had the silliest pseudonym I've ever heard. She called herself "Phoenix Grant". I mean, what kind of a name is this? It's just as if I called myself, say, Hyde Park Corner Montgomery. Or Hamburg Rommel, how about that?" The film has some very optimistic FX and a film score which makes liberal use of Orff's "Carmina Burana".
Donal got another chance to don the Nazi uniform when he played a general in Enzo Castellari's wild war actioner QUEL MALEDETTO TRENO BLINDATO (1978). He remembers working with Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson. "Svenson taught me how to speak German in this film! I didn't know anything, and this guy, who used to be a Swedish ice-hockey player who went to Vietnam as a Marine, he stood there with me, coaching me things like `Bringen Sie die Gefangenen in mein Buro!' Williamson also was a very nice person. I had one wonderful scene in this movie, where I...I was outranking them, they are my prisoners, I walk in front of the prisoners, and I have to say something like, in a very contemptuous way: `Americans...Italians...Jews...Irish!' I felt like a traitor!"
Then he did two more films for Aristide Massaccesi. DURI A MORIRE was a well-made war film where Donal plays a virulently racist army sergeant who gets in the way of Luc Merenda. (Merenda was quite famous at the time for his macho action heroes. He later turned up in Sam Fuller's THE MADONNA AND THE DRAGON, as Jennifer Beals's co-star.) "I met him a year or two ago...He said that he dropped out of the business completely. He was into antiquities, something like that." Another guy, who had already been in GLI ULTIMI CANNIBALI, was black American Percy Hogan. "This was a very nice guy from New Orleans, who had a physique like Floyd Patterson, the great heavyweight champion. What happened to him? I completely lost track of him."
IMMAGINI DI UN CONVENTO (1979) turned out to be one of Joe d'Amato's better sex films, this time spiced up with some near-hardcore masturbation practices and at least one all-out oral rape for the raincoat crowd. The story deals with several nuns who have a serious problem with their libido. Just as its model, Borowczyk's INTERIEUR D'UN COUVENT, IMMAGINI wasn't interested in the realistic depiction of cloister life. Instead we get nuns on heat by the truckload, among them the lovely Paola Senatore (who later got mixed up with drugs and even did one hardcore feature) and porn queen Marina Frajese. "That was a wonderful experience! I mean, look, there were all these beautiful girls dressed up as nuns, and they were all lifting their habits...I nearly died! Aristide always had lovely girls who worked for him. And no matter how prudish they may have seemed before shooting - when he said that magic word, "Azione!, they'll do anything!" I wish this would happen in real life sometimes! "And there was this guy who had a cock like a stallion. When he undressed in front of the girls, you could see their faces drop, they were amazed by this large penis! He looked like the Beast...`What's the matter?' he asked, and they just stared at this great big thing dangling down..." Donal appears as an exorcist who is supposed to cleanse the convent of the foul breath of the Horned One. In a great scene, he is instead overwhelmed by rabid nuns who tear the clothes off his body while he is praying with a face of granite. Ken Russell, eat chain!
One film that was never released was Marco Modugno's IL BRIGANTE, much to Donal's chagrin. "This was a wonderful role. I played a Sicilian baron. They had incredible locations, for instance this majestic castle, I couldn't believe how beautiful it was! We also shot a scene in Hadrian's Villa, in a place called Sanctuario di Ercole. I had a great costume - the costume designers also worked on Visconti's GATTOPARDO. It's a mystery to me why they wouldn't let the film out. It's terrible for an actor: You think you have a big break, then the film just rots on the shelf! Also, the director was a very likeable person, very calm on the set. A wonderful movie."
On this point of our talk, we started to philosophize on the general situation of the Italian film industry. The bartender, Luigi, joined us and he showed me in the paper the ads of the cinemas of Rome. "They take a film like HEAT, with de Niro and Pacino, and they put it in 20 cinemas. Our Italian productions never get a chance here except for the real big ones. Dario Argento's new movie, look, it is shown in one lousy cinema! And then they complain that people don't see Italian movies? Fuck, in a city like Rome, with 3 million people, and so little Italian stuff! If the new Argento movie is in one cinema, and the cinema happens to be on the outskirts, who's gonna go there? That's why these films sink, because they aren't properly distributed, because nobody cares for them! That's a shame."
In 1979/80, there were two movies by the late Marino Girolami, father of Enzo G. Castellari. SESSO PROFONDO was a small but funny sex comedy about a girl who can only achieve an orgasm when she's on a plane. Good for her, as she's a stewardess! Donal only appears in one sequence where he plays the rich owner of a yacht. "I was supposed to wear this really great costume, beautiful white flannel trousers, a captain's cap, it looked marvellous, but right before shooting they had it changed and they told me to wear my own stuff instead. I felt rotten because it looked so cheap." In the U.S.A. there is also a hardcore version with many inserts.
The second film was ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, also by Marino Girolami, acting under the pseudonym "Frank Martin". In this film, Donal plays one of his most popular roles, the mad Dr. O'Brien, better known in the U.S. as DR.BUTCHER M.D. He is meddling with nature, ripping the brains out of some beauties, just to stuff them into the far less sightly shape of gooey-looking zombies. Scottish Ian McCulloch (well-known as an enemy of the undead from Fulci's ZOMBI 2) thwarts his evil scheme. In the end, Donal is ripped to bits for his pains by bloodthirsty cannibals. This highly entertaining piece of schlock horror contains some of the prime examples of spaghetti splatter FX. "That movie was also shot in Croce Verde. Not exactly on the same spot as the Emanuelle movie, but very near. I particularly remember the lovely leading actress, Alessandra delli Colli, the wife of one the greatest Italian cameramen, Tonino delli Colli. There was also this great Japanese guy, who used to have real snakes curl up on his belly! He was incredible."
The year 1980 turned out to be a very bad one for Donal indeed, as he had an accident with lasting consequences. "I slipped out in the bathroom of a Parisian hotel and hit my head. I was in coma for about three days, and when I woke up, one half of my body was paralyzed." It took him a long time to recover, in which the range of the roles he could do was limited, naturally.
Lucio Fulci gave him a part in I GUERRIERI DELL'ANNO 2072 (1983), a cheap but vastly entertaining version of Norman Jewison's ROLLERBALL, with Jared Martin (of DALLAS notoriety) fighting it out with gladiators of the future, among them tough guy Fred Williamson. "Howard Ross was in it, too. A great guy, he cheered us up on the set constantly with his jokes." Ross (whose real name is Renato Rossini) plays a Nazi kind of army officer with an incredibly large hat that seems to have crept out of some really weird Bonvi cartoon. Earlier in his career, he had made himself a name with his appearance in muscle movies and westerns.
Around the same time, Massaccesi cast him as the evil tyrant of TEXAS 2000 aka 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS, another variant on the MAD MAX movies. This film was a very violent affair indeed. "I remember that they had this wonderful effect for my demise, with my skull being cracked open by an axe. They had photos of this stunning effect made, but then decided to change it because they thought it was just too much." Pity. Actually, most of this movie was shot by genre veteran George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), who is now rumored to own an Italian restaurant in Florida! This man, who has to be one of the tallest and strongest Italian actors around, started his career with some westerns and even appeared in Fellinis SATYRICON, as the Minotaur! In the seventies and eighties he proved himself adept in a vast range of roles, eventually turning director in DNA FORMULA LETALE that boasts a climax reminiscent of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Some parts of TEXAS 2000 were reportedly shot by assistant Michele Soavi, who has become one of the best Italian horror directors, one of the great hopes for genre cinema in this country.
Donal's roles in these years became sporadic, due to his handicap. He played a scientist in Sergio Martino's VENDETTA DAL FUTURO (1986), that Martino shot under the pseudonym "Martin Dolman". This is a fast-paced SF movie most people have bad memories about because one of the stars, Claudio Cassinelli, died in a very tragic helicopter accident. Cassinelli had started in films by intellectual directors like Marco Bellocchio and Liliana Cavani, then turned to exploitation cinema where he was particularly successful in the kind of police movies that were popular in Italy during the mid-seventies. He always played toughies, but - due to his quiet nature - they always had a brooding and ambivalent quality about them that made them stand out from many others.
In the same year, Donal also played one of the monks in Jean-Jacques Annaud's great-looking version of THE NAME OF THE ROSE. He wasn't very fond of leading man Sean Connery. "He was the most conceited actor I've ever worked with! He is rich, successful and handsome...good Lord, why does he act that way? He doesn't want anybody near him! If there was anything or anybody that might have taken the eyes of the spectator off of him, he just went to the director and complained, as if he didn't already have enough screen time! Murray Abraham was so different, such a nice man...And there was one brilliant German or Austrian actor on this movie who looked like Falstaff, big, fat guy, a marvellous presence. Helmut Qualtinger was his name. He was terrific!" Qualtinger sadly died later that year.
A little lower on the quality scale was Pierre Chevalier's PANTHER SQUAD, which featured my dear friend Jack Taylor as the Eurociné version of an international super agent. This miserable production is perfectly representative of most of the productions of this particular company, with many different bits and pieces mixed together to form an incohesive whole. Donal has a small part in it, mostly sitting on a desk. I can't remember exactly what it all was about, but then I wouldn't have known twenty minutes after having seen it! (My own personal Eurociné favorite is Andrea Bianchi's unbelievable MANIAC KILLER, with Chuck Connors, Bob Ginty and Bo Svenson in one existential three-pack. Get down with your bad self and check it out!)
ATOR 3 (or TROLL 3, as it is called in Germany!) was shot under the working title THE LORD OF ECHATON KYRIE. Director was Aristide Massaccesi. The film pitted a barbarian bodybuilder against the evil Prince Gunther, right out of the Nibelungenlied. Donal plays the prince, who is madly in love with a Valkyrie. His sister Kriemhild is, of course, played by Laura Gemser. This is a very entertaining little movie. It even has a midget actor playing the role of Alberich. "This midget, whose name was Domenico, once introduced me to a good-looking man who was something like his butler. One year later, the poor little man was found on a dumpheap outside of Rome. The young man had killed him, just a block away from this bar we're sitting in right now! Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction..." This seems to be contradicted by the film itself. You should watch it. Alberich sports an unbelievable pair of very gay-looking bright red leather boots.
LA CASA 3 (1988), also released as GHOST HOUSE, was an Umberto Lenzi movie for Massaccesi's Filmirage production company. Donal has a small but rewarding part as a mad housekeeper who scares several young kids to oblivion. This is what I'd call a John Carradine role. The film is quite good stuff, without being particulary important.
Donal was also supposed to appear in Tinto Brass's as usually steamy PAPRIKA (1990), but he was completely cut out off the Italian version. "I had a nice little part as a brothel visitor. It just disappeared. When I went to Brass for auditioning, he told me that I could choose between a part where I would have to sodomize a man and a part where I WAS sodomized. There was something other, like someone who fucks with a donkey, that kind of thing, but that wasn't quite what I had in mind. So, a few days later, I got this nice little part that landed who-knows-where."
Something comparable happened in Michele Soavi's haunting LA SETTA (1991). The film was well-received by critics almost everywhere, but Donal was a little disappointed by the final results because his part was used in a "Blink-or-you'll-miss-him" manner. "I always preferred those movies I would have a large role in. If I had to choose between a small movie with a big role and a big movie with a small role, I'd take the one with more screen time. It's not very satisfying for an actor to get work and then ending up on the cutting room floor."
1992 had Massaccesi turning to the Frankenstein myth with RITORNO DALLA MORTE, a minor outing in which Donal plays an old guy who is revived after death to wreak vengeance. This film only received a very limited release and is lamentably rare.
Shortly after, Donal once more had to struggle with fate because of a second accident that was linked with the first one. "In all these years of recuperaion, I over-used one half of my body. So, when I did a short sprint on the beach, I just fell and couldn't get back on my feet again. In the bad time following I was helped by my two wonderful brothers, who got me into a hospital and assisted me in many ways, God bless them. As it turned out, the hip bones of the side of my body which had been overly stressed were severely damaged, and so I had a very hard time after that."
During the interview, Donal still had some walking problems, although I have to say that the cane he used also gave him an air of aristocratic superiority that should be put to good use on the screen. He's not thinking of retirement yet, and rightly so, because this guy has more charisma and vivacity than most actors I've met. He's Irish, did I mention that?
So, Donal, grazie per la intervista! In bocca al lupo, crepa il lupo...Grazie also to Luigi, Mario and all the others for incredibly funny hours. Italian cinema will survive!
This conversation took place in the March of 1996
The English version was originally published in Craig Ledbetter´s beautiful film magazine ETC.
By the way: If there is anybody out there who knows what has become of Donal (I have lost his track), please let me know.