Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, husband of Sophia Loren, dies at 94

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ROME (AP) – Carlo Ponti, the film producer who discovered Sophia Loren, launched the movie icon’s career and whose more than half-century romance endured threats of bigamy charges and excommunication, has died. He was 94.

“I have done everything for love of Sophia,” Ponti said in a newspaper interview in 2002. “I have always believed in her.”

Ponti died late Tuesday at a Geneva hospital, his family and Loren’s agents said Wednesday. He had been hospitalized about 10 days earlier because of pulmonary complications.

“My aunt was with him, certainly,” said Loren’s niece, Alessandra Mussolini, who also is a granddaughter of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. “He was lucid until the end.”

Ponti produced more than 100 films, including “Doctor Zhivago,” “The Firemen’s Ball,” and “The Great Day,” which were nominated for Oscars. Other major films included “Blow-Up,” “The Cassandra Crossing,” “Zabriskie Point” and “The Squeeze.”

In 1956, the Federico Fellini film “La Strada,” which he co-produced, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, as did “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” in 1964.

But it was his affair with the young ingenue Loren that captivated the public.

Loren was only 15 – and 25 years younger than Ponti – when the couple met in 1950. Ponti was married to his first wife, Giuliana, at the time.

They tried to keep their relationship a secret in spite of the huge media interest, while Ponti’s lawyers went to Mexico to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Divorce was not yet legal in Italy.

While Ponti worked with legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis and directors such as Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lean and Roman Polanski, his career was to become inextricably tied to that of Loren, who had roles in 34 of the more than 151 movies he produced or co-produced.

Ponti and Loren were married by proxy in Mexico in 1957 – two male attorneys took their place and the happy couple only found out when the news was broken by a society columnist.

But they were unable to beat stringent Italian laws and the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church. Ponti was charged with bigamy and Loren with being a concubine.

“I was being threatened with excommunication, with the everlasting fire, and for what reason? I had fallen in love with a man whose own marriage had ended long before,” Loren has said.

“I wanted to be his wife and have his children. We had done the best the law would allow to make it official, but they were calling us public sinners,” she said. “We should have been taking a honeymoon, but all I remember is weeping for hours.”

The couple first lived in exile and then, after the annulment of their Mexican marriage, in secret in Italy.

During this period, Ponti produced the film “La Ciociara” – known in English as “Two Women” – for which Loren won an Oscar in 1962,

Loren’s part originally was destined for actress Anna Magnani, and Ponti proposed Loren to play her daughter, who gets raped by soldiers. The idea apparently prompted a comment from Magnani about the impropriety of having the physically ripe Loren play her daughter, said said Tullio Kezich, a film critic for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

“You can imagine what Magnani spit out,” said film director Franco Zeffirelli, who included the anecdote in his autobiography. “She said that if anything, she should play the mother.”

After Magnani backed out of the part, Loren got it instead.

Ponti and Loren finally got around Italian law by becoming French citizens – the approval was signed by French President Georges Pompidou – and they married for a second time in Paris in 1966.

Despite many predictions that the marriage would founder over Ponti’s affairs and the many dashing leading men who reportedly fell in love with Loren, the couple stayed together.

Ponti was briefly imprisoned by the Fascist government in Italy during World War II for producing “Piccolo Mondo Antico,” which was considered anti-German. An Italian court later gave Ponti a six-month suspended sentence for his 1973 film “Massacre in Rome,” which claimed Pope Pius XII did nothing to stop the execution of Italian hostages by the Germans. The charges were eventually dropped on appeal.

Though Loren was better known, Ponti amassed a fortune considerably greater than that of his wife – and again fell foul of the Italian authorities.

In 1979, a court in Rome convicted him in absentia of the illegal transfer of capital abroad and sentenced him to four years in prison and a $24 million fine.

Loren, along with film stars Ava Gardner and Richard Harris, were acquitted of conspiracy.

It took Ponti until the late 1980s to settle his legal problems and finally obtain the return of his art collection, which had been seized by authorities and given to Italian museums.

He also survived two kidnapping attempts in 1975.

Ponti discovered many of the great Italian leading ladies, including Gina Lollobrigida, and had affairs with several of them. “I don’t like actors. I prefer women,” he said at the time.

In recent years, the couple lived mostly in Switzerland, where they had several homes. Ponti attended the 1998 Venice Film Festival to accept a lifetime achievement award for his wife, who was kept away by illness.

Ponti, who was born in the town of Magenta on Dec. 11, 1912, had two sons with Loren – Carlo Jr., a conductor, and Edoardo, a film producer. He also had two children from his first marriage, Guendolina and Alexander.

No date was given for funeral arrangements; a statement from the family said it would be private.

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