Massimo Troisi collapsed due to a serious heart condition three days into filming Il Postino. It came down to me whether he should continue
It is almost 17 years since the death of Massimo Troisi, the star of my film Il Postino, yet he is as present in my life as he was when he lived. There was nothing overtly Neapolitan about him, except for his accent, which was so thick it took me months to understand. That amused him a lot.
I got to know him when I made my first film, Another Time, Another Place, which was about three Italian prisoners of war in Scotland. I had seen his first film Ricomincio da Tre (aka I'm Starting From Three) at the London film festival and was immediately struck by his humour. I asked him to be in the film, and he refused because he said Scotland was too cold. When the film came out, he called me up and in his mumbly way told me it was his favourite movie and asked if I would like to collaborate on a movie in Naples. I told him Naples was too hot. We became friends, and for eight years we would meet once or twice a year to discuss various projects – as you do in this business, without much hope of finding anything.
Then we found something – a Chilean novel called A Burning Patience – and went to Los Angeles to adapt it. Il Postino was written in three weeks in Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, because Massimo wanted to be somewhere people would not recognise him. Occasionally, we would have to visit some famous Italian restaurant where people would stare, and the waiters would ask for his autograph, so he could remind himself he was still famous.
But there was another motive. He wanted to have a medical check in Houston. So I went back to Naples. And there I waited, and waited. I found out later he had been told his heart was the size of a football and he needed a new one. He asked for a temporary operation in order to stabilise his condition and continue with the film. The doctors agreed, and when he came back, he seemed fine.
But he wasn't. On the third day of shooting, he collapsed. He went to stay with his sister, and it seemed the film was over. Three days later he called me. "How was I?" he asked. I knew he wanted me to decide whether he should risk his life. My heart told me yes, my head no. Was I signing his death warrant? I didn't know. But I knew that he had been sensational. So I told him. "OK," he said. "I'm carrying on."
At the end, when I had finished shooting, he told me had an appointment at Harefield hospital for a new heart the following day. Then he said to me: "You know, I don't really want this new heart. You know why? Because the heart is the centre of emotion, and an actor is a man of emotion. Who knows what kind of an actor I'm going to be with someone else's heart beating inside me?"
He never made it: I heard of his death on the radio the next day.
Many people think that the movie ends with the death of the main character because Massimo had died. It was not true. That's how we wrote it. And when Mario Cecchi Gori, the producer, asked if ending with a death was not too depressing, Massimo said: "No, Mario. Because there is no death in the movies."
And he was right.
Michael Radford, thank you for this truly heartfelt piece and for immortalising Massimo on screen, bringing him to the English speaking world with your wonderful film. A fitting tribute in itself to his genius. You brought out his sensitivity in such a wonderful way.
I first became aware of Massimo Troisi as a teenager watching Ricomincio da Tre and as London Italian with a Neapolitan mother identified so strongly with the character Troisi plays in that film, his streetwise knowledge, but also his touching and humorous insecurities. It remains my one of my favourite Italian films.
The humour, the almost stoical sadness at the heart of that character, one just knew it had so much of the real person in there. And the Neapolitan language and dark sense of humour was so hilarious to listen to (I have to post the opening sequence, still makes me laugh), he gave it such a rich twist. I knew Neapolitans like that on my holidays in Italy, with that same brand of dark humour and hilarious anecdotes, but he was the Neapolitan king of comedy!
Anyway, felt compelled to reply to this. Thank you once again!
I love this film so much. To watch Massimo in this film, knowing the real life story just makes a beautiful and sad film even more heart wrenching.
there are few films one would watch twice... life being short an' all. but this is one of the films you can watch over and over again ... fabulous!!
Great piece and great movie, Michael Radford.
Massimo was at his best, and unforgettable; but let me say that all the characters will live in memory: the father, the poet, the girl (and her aunt!), the chief-postman ("no, you should not say that the women write to him.. è il popolo!").
Above an ocean of vulgarity and mediocrity, two Italian movies stand out for the last 15 years: "Bread and Tulips" and "Il Postino", I don't know in which order.
Thanks for sharing this story; as someone who loved the movie and thought that Massimo was a magnificient actor and human being, it felt good to have this kind of insights.
also Non ti mouvere (Don't Move), which is excellent and based on an excellent novel.
It so happened that I watched Il Postino for the first time last night. It's funny and beautiful and incredibly sad, and completely avoids cliche, which is such a rare thing. I found it extremely moving - even more so now I've read this.
Fans of Radford's remake should seek out Antonio Skármeta's rather better 1980s original, Ardiente paciencia (Burning Patience).