Antonio De Curtis, or Totò as he is better known, is not well known outside of Italy, but in his home country is one of the most famous comedians in the history of television and film. Not surprisingly, Italians refer to Totò as the Prince of Laughter. Born in Naples in February 1898, Totò would become a celebrated actor, writer, singer and songwriter, for a long time neglected by critics, some of whom are only now reevaluating what was once largely considered meaningless humor.
At first glance Totò’s humor could seem simple, especially when compared to the neorealist aesthetics popular at the time. Today, however, Totò is considered one of Italy’s top comedic talents—ever. Totò and his movies offer a glimpse into the everyday life of Italy in the 1950's and 1960's. The comedian’s popularity has also not waned. LifeInItaly gets constant emails from Italians living abroad looking for copies of Totò’s movies, and in Italy, almost everyone would recognize Totò's image instantly. If you happen to be in Rome, take a stroll to Piazza Navona and check out the caricature artists and their works: you will most definitely find a portrait of Totò.
Antonio De Curtis may have been Totò’s off stage name, but his actual name involved quite an interesting story: Totò was the illegitimate son of Anna Clemente and Marquis Giuseppe De Curtis, who at first didn't recognize Totò as his son. In the 1930's, already an established actor, Totò asked and obtained to be adopted by the Marquis Francesco Maria Gagliardi Focas. Some years after, his own natural father finally recognized him, reason for which Totò inherited the names -and the fortunes- of two different noblemen.
Totò grew up in a very poor area of Naples, the Rione Sanità, and eventually moved to Rome with his mother in 1922. In Naples, he had already demonstrated a great passion and aptitude for the stage, although his talent didn’t emerge immediately in Rome. Rather, it was thanks to Giuseppe Jovinelli’s vision that Totò became noticed by Italian audiences.
Totò has made Italian theater history with trademarks like the burattino or “the puppet” (a way of walking and moving arms upside down in a mechanical way), and the themes introduced in his works, which were always interpreted from a comic perspective.
Totò, Miseria e Nobiltà
One of the themes Totò dealt with very often was the importance of aristocratic titles, which he mocked constantly, and the hunger among poor people. The story goes that Totò was so good to evoke hunger in his stage performances because he wouldn’t eat before them.
The 1930s and the birth of talkies marked Totò’s first forays into motion pictures. Over the decades, the comedian would go on to star in over 100 works that showcased his abilities for both physical and slapstick humor, as well as more intelligent insights that made audiences reflect on issues surrounding important social themes.
Totò’s jokes and lines have also made history, working themselves into everyday Italian vernacular. One example of this is the saying Signori ci si nasce or “People must be born lords,” meaning that nobility is not linked to a title but to the goodness of one's heart.
Totò died of heart attack at the age of sixty-nine in April 1967 in Rome. His birth home has recently been opened to the public as a museum and his tombstone is constantly visited by fans who consider him not only a great artist, but also a great man who brought humanity to a very problematic area of Naples.
A huge crowd took part in the comedian’s funeral, a scene that he foretold in a comment to his friend Franca Faldini: "Il mio funerale sarà bello assai perché ci saranno parole, paroloni, elogi, mi scopriranno un grande attore: perché questo è un bellissimo paese, in cui però per venire riconosciuti qualcosa, bisogna morire." (“My funeral will be really beautiful because there will be words, buzzwords, praise, people will recognize me as a great actor, because Italy is a very beautiful country, but here you can only be recognized for something if you die.”)
Suggested Totò Movies: I soliti ignoti (Totò has only a minor part in this movie, but it can be found in English), La banda degli onesti, Totò Peppino e la malafemmina, Miseria e nobiltà, Toto' truffa 62, e Guardie e ladri.