Totò: the humble man and the talented artist

On February 15th of the year 1898 Antonio De Curtis was born, the artist universally known as Totò, nickname with which his mother used to call him. In 1933 he was adopted by the Marquis Francesco Maria Gagliardi Focas, thus obtaining the noble title. His characteristic appearance is due to an incident occurred during the frequentation of the Cimino College where the preceptor accidentally hits him in the face, causing him to atrophy the left side of the nose: the asymmetry that constitutes that “mask” will make him recognizable worldwide. During the “periodiche” (with this term in Naples were called meetings for the purpose of entertainment held in private homes) he entertains friends and relatives with performances for which is inspired by Gustavo De Marco, comedian active in the first two decades of the last century and inventor of the comico-zumpo (man-marionette). He reveals to his mother the desire to become an actor without getting his support; but do not give up and spend a period performing with the pseudonym of Clerment for the miserable daily pay of  £1.80. At seventeen he enlisted in the army and at the time of being transferred to France, provides evidence of his acting skills: pretends to be prey to an epileptic crisis, he is taken to hospital and so remains in the Italian border, in Livorno, and then return to Naples once discharged. He made his debut in his city in suburban theaters, together with the De Filippo brothers. In Rome he met the Commedia dell’arte, becoming extraordinary (a sort of actor on the bench) in the company of Umberto Capece and specializing in the antagonist of Pulcinella. The thing is not successful and, after a period of hardship, he performs at the Teatro Sala Umberto I: amid big applause and strong requests for encores, he begins to build fame that will make him famous all over the world, fame crowned and amplified from his appearance on the big screen. In the meantime, he devoted himself to parody and used theater as an instrument of denunciation against those he would call ‘caporali’ or dictators, such as Hitler and Mussolini, who would imitate grotesquely by deforming the figure. He becomes director of the comedians of various theatrical show companies. He will always be linked to the theater because of the relationship that he can establish with his audience but also dedicates himself to the cinema presenting between 1937 and 1967 ninety-seven titles, working with the biggest names on the Italian scene: Monicelli, Rossellini, Zavattini, Steno, Fellini, Pasolini. He keeps or deviates from the character-puppet respecting the wishes of the directors, uses the script as a plot giving importance to improvisation: everything contributes to the comedy to arouse laughter even if the situations represented are dramatic. The fact that many films already contain in the title his name (Totò cerca casa; Totò sceicco; Totò e Carolina) leads one to think that he is not only an actor but also a character. Thanks to the meeting with Pasolini he enters the Italian art cinema. He is also remembered for his appearances on television and for his contribution as a composer and singer. It seems that the famous song Malafemmena was written by De Curtis on a pack of cigarettes, dedicating it to Silvana Pampanini for which he had a veneration and with which he shares the set of “47 morto che parla”. Despite serious eye problems, he will act until the end; manages to shoot the first scene of “Il padre di famiglia” by Nanni Loy but the Prince of laughter died two days later, April 15 of the year 1967, leaving the memory of an artistic talent but also a man dedicated to charity.

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