June 2016 was a sad month for German TV viewers and moviegoers. On June 19th, at age 77, Götz George died, who in Germany had been a legend already in his lifetime; he will be remembered as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Then, on June 27th, George was followed by actor Carlo Pedersoli, better known as Bud Spencer. Spencer died at age 86, in Italy, where he was from.
Perhaps Spencer’s biggest fans don’t live in Italy, or in the U.S., where most of his films are set – but in Germany.
When you go up the stairs of Lehmanns bookstore on Grimmaische Straße in Leipzig, you see, on the last landing before the second floor, his photo on the wall. In 2011, he had come to the store to read from his autobiography. About a thousand fans went to see him there.
Still today, German TV frequently reruns his films.
Born in Naples in 1929, Carlo Pedersoli had many talents. In the 1950s, he won multiple Italian swimming championships and took part in two Olympic Games. In the 1960s, he composed songs for an Italian record company. In the 1970s and 80s, he obtained pilot’s licenses and founded an airline. He also invented several things and had them patented, for example a door lock.
But his true fame came from his acting. Already in the 1950s, he played some small roles in Italian films. Then, in 1967, he was given the main role in the Spaghetti Western God Forgives… I Don’t! However, the director also wanted his actors to have names more appropriate for a Western – English rather than Italian ones.
So Carlo Pedersoli changed his name to Bud Spencer, because he liked both Budweiser beer and actor Spencer Tracy.
Another main role in God Forgives… was given to an Italian actor named Mario Girotti – he changed his name, for the director, to Terence Hill. This was the birth of one of the most perfect tandems on screen since Laurel and Hardy: Between 1967 and 1994, Spencer and Hill, who were also friends in real life, starred side by side in close to 20 films. Terence Hill, by the way, was born in Venice in 1939, but had a German mother; he grew up in Lommatzsch, Saxony, and still speaks fluent German.
God Forgives… is a brutal Western. In the early 1970s, by contrast, Spencer and Hill started producing what became their trademark: slapstick comedies studded with copious fights; that is, fist fights, brawls, punch-ups, however you may call it. There is no exact English translation for the German term “Prügelei” – it’s the kind of fights you also find in Asterix comics.
These fights certainly shouldn’t be emulated by the audience, but in the stories, they don’t really do any harm – let alone kill anyone – so you can merrily laugh about them. All the more so because, although the characters played by Spencer and Hill are never exactly innocent themselves, they always are of good nature, and fight against thugs who chase them.
The Spencer and Hill films were made by Italian production teams and recorded in Italian or English. For the German market, they were dubbed – in a way that added greatly to their appeal and made them so successful in Germany, as opposed to other countries.
The German editors took the liberty of spicing up the original, less funny dialogues with cascades of bizarre metaphors, silly puns, grotesque swearwords and insults.
In short: incredible but ingenious nonsense. Those German dialogues are untranslatable, and truly hilarious only when heard in context and rapid succession, so I won’t cite any here – but you can find them collected on countless websites.
To interest you in getting to know Bud Spencer, in case you don’t yet, I’d like to list my favorite Spencer and Hill films and what I think are highlights from them. All the YouTube clips featured here are in English, except one where only the German version was available.
The stories always follow one pattern: Spencer’s character is tall, heavy, and grumpy. Hill’s is athletic, brisk, and pert. The two don’t like each other but must cooperate anyway since the same gangsters are after them. At the end, Spencer and Hill prevail thanks to their fists, but also because the gangsters are, to put it mildly, not the most brilliant minds.
By the way, after watching several films, you will notice that not only Spencer and Hill appear again and again, but also Riccardo Pizzuti – an Italian actor with graying hair and mustache who always excels as the dumbest of the gangster bosses’ henchmen.
1. Trinity Is Still My Name (1971, German: Vier Fäuste für ein Halleluja): Set in the Wild West. In a saloon, Spencer and Hill win a poker game against a cardsharper by cheating even better than him. During the game, Hill moreover displays breathtaking shuffling techniques. And afterwards, he teaches the furious cardsharper a lesson in a “slapping duel.”
2. Watch out, We’re Mad (1974, Zwei wie Pech und Schwefel): Set in Spain. Henchmen of a building tycoon accidentally wreck Spencer and Hill’s beach buggy. When the latter demand compensation, the tycoon denies it and hires a professional assassin to kill them. The assassin lies in ambush for them in a concert hall where Spencer is rehearsing with his choir. Hill arrives on time to warn him and joins the rehearsal. The assassin’s attempts to shoot are thwarted by Spencer and Hill moving to the choir’s female section, but also by unsuspecting cleaning ladies and stage technicians. Besides, the unique song the choir is rehearsing in the process, consisting mainly of “la-las”, is itself priceless, and the singers present a dazzlingly colorful array of 1970s shirts and dresses.
3. Crime Busters (1977, Zwei außer Rand und Band): Spencer and Hill look for a job at the port of Miami, but the local gangsters who they happen to ask violently turn them away. In return, Spencer demolishes the gangsters’ car, Hill demolishes their next car, and finally, Spencer and Hill together make the gangsters demolish car number three themselves. After that, the gangsters decide to from now on go by taxi.
4. Go for It (1983, Zwei bärenstarke Typen): After a brawl with ruthless truck drivers in a rest stop along a U.S. highway, Spencer and Hill drive off in a truck which both think the other one owns. As a result, police stop and want to arrest them for theft. However, thanks to Hill’s ventriloquism, he and Spencer manage to escape.
5. Double Trouble (1984, Vier Fäuste gegen Rio): Spencer and Hill each in a double role. They play wealthy entrepreneur cousins in Rio de Janeiro, whom someone is trying to assassinate. Stricken with fear, they hire two daredevil U.S. Americans who look exactly like them (and whom they also play) to temporarily take their place and identify their enemy. Soon after starting the job, the look-alikes – a stuntman and a saxophone player – are supposed to attend the party of one of the cousins’ aristocratic friends. However, they figure it won’t be their kind of event and decide to visit a shady table dance bar instead. There, the gangsters who had been following them confront them, but receive an unexpected thrashing from the men they thought were the docile cousins. (Video in German)
Last but not least, I should mention Even Angels Eat Beans (1973, Auch die Engel essen Bohnen), one of the more than 30 films where Spencer appeared without Hill. In Even Angels Eat Beans, though, his co-star, Giuliano Gemma, plays the same type of character as Hill, and doesn’t look much different from him. The film, whose title alludes to Spencer’s eating habit in the Westerns, is set in New York around 1930. Spencer and Gemma join the mafia but turn out to be too compassionate to carry out their assignments. Since this film isn’t well covered on YouTube, we here must make do with a trailer. (In spite of that, the film offers many unforgettable sequences, for example the one where Spencer and Gemma are trained and equipped to be mafia members.)
I don’t want to end without admitting that you could equally criticize Bud Spencer’s films. As an actor, he didn’t have the artistic qualities of, for example, Götz George, and wouldn’t have won an Oscar. And yes, most of his productions, including those here described, are indeed totally silly. However, many of us who grew up in Germany grew up with those films, and therefore continue to cherish the dear memories attached to them.
And even for other people, when they are in a certain mood, a Bud Spencer film can be just the kind of entertainment that may lift their spirits. That is the lasting legacy Spencer has left to the world.