Oreste Lionello; Guardian obit (Italy's most famous dubbing artist)

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Mar 21, 2009, 1:07:46 PM3/21/09
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Oreste Lionello
Lee Marshall
The Guardian, Thursday 19 March 2009

Oreste Lionello, who has died aged 81, was Italy's most
famous dubbing artist. It was Lionello's voice that Italian
filmgoers heard when Woody Allen opened his mouth; and such
is the esteem for the dubbing artist in Italy - a country
where subtitled films are generally viewed as too much like
hard work - that Lionello and a few other voices became
celebrities in their own right. In the words of the film
critic Fabio Ferzetti, Lionello's perfect lip-sync dubs
"took the original comic mask and Italianised it, turning it
into something entirely different, with a cultural richness
that only a local audience could fully understand".

Lionello also had a successful acting career outside the
dubbing studio. He was a cabaret performer, character actor
and TV mimic, whose take-off of the éminence grise of
Italian politics, Giulio Andreotti, remained definitive for
many years - only supplanted by Toni Servillo's more
sinister take on Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's kooky
political operetta Il Divo (due to be released in the UK
next week).

Born in Rhodes (then under Italian occupation) to a
career-military father, Lionello soon moved back to Italy
with his family. His school years were spent in Reggio
Calabria in the deep south, and he crossed to Sicily to
study law at Palermo University. But acting was already a
passion, nurtured in amateur groups while he worked in a
notary's office, and finally indulged to the full when he
moved to Rome in 1954.

He began his career as a radio comedian and gag-writer in a
city whose entertainment scene was still dominated by the
cabaret theatres that so inspired another recent émigré from
the provinces, Federico Fellini. Like Fellini (who would
later offer him his dubbing pièce de résistance - voicing
eight separate actors in his 1978 film Prova d'Orchestra),
Lionello did a bit of everything in his early years, lending
his voice to Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and making his TV
debut in the childrens' comedy sci-fi series Il Marziano
Filippo in 1956. His feature-film dubbing career took off in
the early 1960s, when, among other roles, Lionello
Italianised Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove and Dick Van
Dyke in Mary Poppins.

But it was as a cabaret performer that Lionello had perhaps
the greatest influence, founding in 1965, together with four
other actor-comedians, the still-extant Roman comedy revue
Il Bagaglino, which mixed broad comedy with political
satire. From the mid-1970s onwards, Bagaglino's take-offs of
political figures would be aired first in the Sala
Margherita theatre in the centre of Rome and then segue into
television, forming the centrepiece of the popular
Sunday-afternoon variety shows.

However, many Italians were uneasy with the satire peddled
by Il Bagaglino; and accusations that it flattered rather
than criticised its targets were lent weight when the
media-magnate prime minister Silvio Berlusconi used a
surprise on-stage appearance at Il Bagaglino last October to
announce a package of anti-crisis measures.

Lionello was indifferent to such analyses. But behind his
comic masks he was a private and formal man, who
occasionally used the "Lei" form of address even with his
children, three of whom became actors.

Only once, perhaps, did Lionello let his mask slip - and
even then, it was done with his trademark irony - when, at
the end of a 2007 Italian TV interview with Woody Allen that
he had been asked to dub, he requested, and obtained, a
dubbing artist's right to reply to Allen's scathing comments
on organised religion. Television audiences saw part of the
interview repeated - but this time it was Lionello himself
addressing them drily in perfect lip-sync with Allen, with
the words: "I dissociate myself from Woody's remarks... I'm
not an atheist, I'm Catholic... and I believe that we're all
tiny glimmers of God's creativity."

Lionello is survived by his wife and four children.

. Oreste Lionello, actor and dubbing artist, born 18 April
1927; died 20 February 2009

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