Gian Maria Volonté was one of the most important actors in Italian cinema. He was born in Milan on April 9, 1933. His family soon moved to Turin, where he was raised. Volonté made his theatrical debut at a young age, performing with the traveling company “Carri di Tespi.” In 1957, he graduated from Rome’s Drama Academy and took on roles in Milan’s Sant’Erasmo Theater and the Stabile in Trieste. Volonté attracted attention in the 1960s for his maverick, rebellious image and political activism. He debuted on Italian television in 1959, acting in a version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He began to star in films the next year, performing in Duilio Coletti’s Under Ten Flags. His career took off, and he began shooting four films a year. Volonté was a dedicated actor who took his work seriously. He could be hard to work with and was not interested in the business side of acting.
Volonté turned down roles with directors like Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola in order to make the films that addressed Italian social issues. For example, in the 1986 film Il caso Moro he played Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister who was kidnapped and assassinated by the Red Brigades. With director Elio Petri he starred in To Each His Own, based on the Leonardo Sciascia novel, as well as The Working Class Goes To Heaven and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a movie that won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1971. Over the next two decades, Volonté would stack up successes and impressive performances, working with directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Marco Bellocchio, Mario Monicelli, and Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. In 1981 Volonté helped left-wing political activist Oreste Scalzone, a wanted man, flee Italy. Volonté was expelled from the Italian Communist Party, and decided to abandon politics altogether.
Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a successful operation he began to suffer from depression. But by 1983, Volonté was back on the set. He was awarded best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his work in La morte di Mario Ricci. In 1990, after he had already won three Nastri d’Argento and two David di Donatello awards, he won the European Film Award for best European actor in Gianni Amelio’s Open Door. The next year, he received a Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for lifetime achievement. He died of a heart attack on December 6, 1994, while shooting Ulysses’ Gaze with director Theodoros Angelopoulos. He was 61. Gian Maria Volontè, was the consummate anti-star and has become an emblem of European political cinema.