R.I.P. Tomás Milián - Cuchillo forever

R.I.P. Tomás Milián - Cuchillo forever

Tomás Milián who died last week from a stroke in his apartment in Miami, was born in Havana, Cuba, on March 3, 1933. His father was an army general under Gerardo Machado, president of Cuba between 1925 and 1933. After the collapse of Machado's government, Tomás' father was arrested and jailed; he was released later, but denied most of his civil rights.  In 1946, a 12-year old Tomás witnessed the suicide of his father, an event that would scar the young man for life. In 1957 the family moved to the US.

Tomás became a student of Lee Strasberg, studying method acting at the Actors Studio in New York City. He was offered a few minor roles in major productions but decided to move to Italy to prove his luck in the then flourishing Italian movie industry. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he appeared as a supporting actor in several movies produced and directed by Mauro Bolognini.

In 1965 Spanish director Eugenio Martin offered him a role in the Italian-Spanish co-production The Bounty Killer (El precio de un Hombre, Italian title: La morte ti segue... ma non ha fretta). His next role, in Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (La Resa dei Conti), as the charming Mexican bandit Cuchillo, falsely accused of rape, would mark his great breakthrough: the movie also featured Lee van Cleef and is often called one of the finest spaghetti westerns in history, topped only by some of Sergio Leone's masterpieces. The finale features a famous duel with the charactor of Cuchillo beating a ruthless gunman with his knife, the so-called "poor man's gun". Milian would return as Cuchillo in Run Man Run, in which the character had become a revolutionary. To fans of the spaghetii western, he will forever be Cuchillo.

Ironically this refugee from Cuba was asked to play a left-wing revolutionary in movies like Giuli Petroni's Tepepa (in which he appeared alongside Orson Welles!) and Sergio Corbucci's Vamos a matar, Compañeros. He saw his characters as Third World heroes, making history for those who were denied a decent life, not necessarily as political (that is communist) activists, but on the set of Face to Face he would repeatedly clash with co-protagonist Gian-Maria Volonté, a left-wing activist. He also appeared in the non-political, but highly symbolical (some would say diabotical) Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (Se sei vivo spara).

Even when playing Spanish speaking characters, Tomás Milián was usually dubbed by a voice actor (a practice very common in Italy), but in Tepepa he delivered his own lines for the first time, creating a curious - and according to many very funny - mixed language called 'Spitaliano' that contributed a lot to his popularity in Italy.

After the glory years of the spaghetti western, Tomas Milián turned to other genres such as giallo, poliziotesco and comedy. He became enduringly popular in his new home country (he had become an Italian state citizen in 1969) thanks to two roles: the petty thief Er Monezza and the unorthodox police officer Nico Giraldi (in a series of eleven comedy thrillers between 1976 and 1984). Milian was dubbed in these movies but wrote his own lines in Roman slang.

Although he will be remembered primarily for his appearances in genre movies, Tomás Milián also appeared in highly regarded - non-genre  - productions such as Bernardo Bertolucci's La Luna (1979) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Identificazione di una Donna (1980). In the autumn of his years, he returned to the US and made some guest appearances in Hollywood productions such as Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000).

Ironically he had expressed his wish to return to Rome to his close friend Monica Cattaneo shortly before his death on March 22.

Tomas (as Giraldi) with John Dulaney


* Tomás Milián, Wikipedia page in Italian and English
* Marco Giusti, Dizionario del western all'italiano
* Tomas Milian è Morto: in Italia il successo come "Er Monezza", Gazetta.It