An Actor’s Life: From Fellini to Breaking Away to Django Unchained
by Jay S. Jacobs
You couldn’t make up Dennis Christopher’s life if you tried. It has been a wild ride made up of raw talent, hard work and sheer luck and it has translated into a show business career that has been going strong for over 40 years – not bad for a guy who is only in his 50s.
Much like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Christopher has been a constant presence on the outskirts of Hollywood stardom. Ever since he moved away from his hometown of Philadelphia, Dennis Christopher has consistently taken on interesting and risky roles – putting artistic growth over fame – and working with some of the great talents in film, theater and television.
He even was a buzz-worthy upcoming star when he played the lead in the beloved 1979 coming-of-age story Breaking Away. He could have skirted by on similar roles, but instead since then he has taken on a dizzying series of intriguing parts that included a small role in Chariots of Fire, an against-type psycho role in Fade to Black, an extended Broadway run in Little Foxes and as part of the cult-fave miniseries Stephen King’s It.
In recent years, Christopher has guest-starred or had recurring roles in most great series on television including Profiler, Law & Order, Roswell, CSI, Criminal Minds, Star Trek: Enterprise and Deadwood.
However, perhaps his most surprising career turn came when just recently writer/director Quentin Tarantino specifically asked him to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s consigliore in the high-profile action film Django Unchained.
We recently spoke extensively with Christopher, who gave us some great insights into his life on stage and screen, his breakthrough role in Breaking Away and his high-profile fan named Tarantino.
One of your first acting roles was in Roma by Federico Fellini. I was reading that you were actually just travelling through Europe and stumbled upon Fellini’s shoot. How did you get that part and what was it like to even have a small part with such a legendary director?
I’d always wanted to be a hippie. There were two things I wanted to be: an actor and a hippie. Well, first I wanted to be a priest, then I wanted to be an actor and then I wanted to be a hippie. But, [being a hippie] was done. It was over in the United States. I knew it was still going on over there and I was under the influence of an older woman. (laughs again) I ended up going there with a one-way ticket. They used to have these things in the olden days called charter flights, where they would fill them up with people and they were very, very economical. I went to Europe with a one-way charter flight ticket, following this friend of mine. My friend’s name was Jeannie. We ended up hitchhiking from France to Rome. Of all people, the guy who picked us up has become a well-known photographer named Christopher Makos.
We pulled into Rome. We hadn’t even checked into a pensione or anything. Money was very tight. I went to Europe indefinitely with about $79.00 in my pocket. Very adventurous times for me. We were sitting in some cheap place, having a bowl of – what else? – pasta. I saw this beautiful woman walk by. Bare feet, in a caftan, sort of a diaphanous robe. It was this woman I had seen in fashion magazines called Veruschka. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her. She was a very famous model.
Yes, I remember her name.
Google her. There was nobody like her that I’d ever seen in my life, [even] in photographs. Here she was in person. She walked by. I didn’t respond. I was flabbergasted by her and being in Rome and the whole thing. Then I went, “Excuse me,” and I left [my friend] there. I tried to follow after this woman, not exactly knowing what I was going to do, maybe just get a better look at her or something. I left my duffel bag, with all my possessions in it, behind. I promptly got lost, because all the little streets in the center of Rome are dead ends and cul de sacs. I didn’t know where I was. Everything started to look alike. I couldn’t find her, I couldn’t find where I was.
I turned a corner in a square. And, lo and behold, they were shooting a movie there. I thought it looked like a really cheesy situation, personally. I didn’t understand what was going on. There was a big parade and all of these very large, round prostitutes. There was a giant pig that they were carrying. It was just madness. The man sitting way up top on a chair on a crane was Fellini. I had confided in my friend Jeannie – and not very many other people, it was just a kid’s pipe dream – that I thought my whole life as an actor would come together if I met Fellini. (laughs) I knew he would recognize me and know what to do with me immediately. (laughs harder) I don’t know why. I think it was having seen Satyricon at a very young age. It had blown my mind. I thought, “That’s what I want to do! That’s the kind of movie I want to be in.” At that point, I didn’t even associate the word art with cinema, that’s how young I was.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.