What a Character!!
by Michael Fitzgerald
On August 31, 2005 the amazing character actress and authoress Argentina Brunetti turned 98 years of age. This multi-talented and fascinating lady, born in Buenos Aires, has recently written her book, “In Sicilian Company,” which is also a history of her ancestry (her mother, Mimi Aguglia, appeared in 1943’s The Outlaw). The book has been published by BearManor Media.
From the 1930s, when she dubbed for Jeanette MacDonald, until the 21st century, her life and career have been impressive. She has played a wide variety of roles, and has kept in touch with numerous celebrities, from Hollywood’s Golden Age, up to the present.
Recently, Miss Brunetti has shared many stories of her movie making days. There will be even more in her book, which is available now. The following short interview gives an idea of the fascinating life she has led.
Michael Fitzgerald: Your most recent credit is The 4th Tenor in 2002 with Rodney Dangerfield. What was that like, and how has movie making changed since the 1930s?
Argentina Brunetti: Unknown to us all it was Rodney’s last film. He was a very kind man who always had a nice word as well as a joke to try out on everyone. I never heard him get angry on the set, although there were times when he easily could, due to the myriad of problems that occur when making a movie. Filmmaking has become a lot more technical and pictures that sometimes took six months to make are now are made in six weeks in order to save money.
MF: You worked on the soap General Hospital for a time. How did that come about, and how did you like doing a one-hour daily show?
AB: Normally when the casting departments were looking for a Mediterranean mother or grandmother, I was almost always asked to try out and most of the times, fortunately, I got the role. This was true for General Hospital as well. The cast and crew was great and we all got along very well together. Hour long TV films made for long days, especially if one includes putting on the makeup and taking it off before going home. It was often that I had to be on the set at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t get home until seven or eight in the evening. And then there was a lot of time in between the scenes you were in. I did a lot of knitting and crossword puzzles in those days.
MF: You’ve done several made-for-TV movies. Any opinions on differences between them and theatrically released movies?
AB: Most of the TV movies then, and especially now, were made for American TV and then released as theatrical movies abroad. On the whole they were made more rapidly, and less money went into expensive sets, distant exterior location [shooting] and really costly stars.
MF: You worked on Shakiest Gun in the West with Don Knotts. What was he like?
AB: Don Knotts was a really funny man, and just as nervous off camera as he was on.
MF: You played a squaw in that film. With your versatility, you could be cast as almost anything — nuns, Mexicans, whatever. How did you learn so many accents!?
AB: I seem to have been blessed with a facility for languages, and learned Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and French well enough be at least conversational. I learned most of them in school and then used them constantly when I was growing up in the theatre’s international environment.
MF: You played George Raft’s mother in The George Raft Story with Ray Danton who played Raft.
AB: George Raft would come on the set almost every day to watch Ray Danton do his scenes. He seemed satisfied with [Ray’s] performance, but didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
MF: You played the lovable but nosy Miss Hooten in Jet Over the Atlantic, with the REAL Raft, Guy Madison, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Lindsay, and Brett Halsey.
AB: This was the first time I played a major role of a very British woman. I was a little nervous, but everyone continuously complimented me and made it much easier. It was great fun and so were all the cast.
MF: There was an interesting incident on the set of Rains of Ranchipur, starring Lana Turner, and Richard Burton.
AB: This is the film is where, in real life, I bet one of my coworkers that he could not slap Lana Turner on the rear end, and have her thank him for it. The whole episode is discussed in my book.
MF: You worked with Tyrone Power on King of the Khyber Rifles.
AB: The make up department did such a good job on me that Tyrone Power, upon meeting me for the first time, asked which part of India I was from. After he found out about my Italian heritage, he could not stop talking about Italy and the fact that he was married there and could not wait to return for a vacation.
MF: In The Caddy you played Dean Martin’s mom and he sings a song to you, “That’s Amore.”
AB: No one would have ever believed that that song would become an icon of American music and a classic in itself that is rediscovered by every new generation. At the time of the film, Dean and Jerry were not getting along well. In fact in one scene, Jerry actually pushed Dean into a swimming pool. And it was not supposed to be part of the scene.
MF: In Tropic Zone you acted with a future President of the United States.
AB: I was padded up for my scenes, as they wanted a heavy set person for the role. When Ronald Reagan saw me a few months later at a cocktail party, he complimented me on all the weight I had lost!
MF: In Ghost Chasers we see you with the Bowery Boys.
AB: Leo Gorcey was very close to his father [Bernard Gorcey] and had him act in just about all his films. When [Bernard] died Leo took it very hard and lost himself in alcohol, ruining his career, and finally ending his life.
MF: What was your opinion of Mario Lanza who worked with you on The Great Caruso?
AB: If Mario Lanza was still alive, I am convinced that he would have been an even greater opera singer than either Caruso himself or even Pavarotti. Since I have heard them all sing countless times in person, I think that I can make such a statement with some degree of accuracy.
MF: In the juvenile delinquency film Knock on Any Door, you played John Derek’s mother. Humphrey Bogart starred.
AB: Bogey was a loner and didn’t socialize with most of his fellow actors on the set. He was always polite with everybody and soft spoken, as well as a very serious professional — always on time and knew his lines.
MF: In Holiday in Havana you played Desi Arnaz’s mother.
AB: Desi was a lot like Rodney Dangerfield, always joking and fooling around on the set. But when it came time to work, he forgot everything except what he was supposed to do in front of the camera.
MF: On TV you guested on everything — from Andy Griffith to Everybody Loves Raymond. Any comments on shows, stars, and how comedy has changed on TV?
AB: Comedy really changed in the early 1950s with the creation of Desilu productions by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Their ideas about filming comedy series (instead of doing live shows and shooting with more than one camera at a time, filming the scenes before live audiences and even having a comedian warm up the studio audience before each shoot) soon became the industry standard. Also the comedies of the day reflected the customs of the country. Then, swearing or costume malfunctions were unheard of. Bed scenes that are common today on such shows as Everybody Loves Raymond, were strictly forbidden then.
MF: Let’s finish with one of your best remembered roles. How did you get your role in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life?
AB: I think that it had a lot to do with my mother being Sicilian, and a big star of the international theater. In the early 1980s when I interviewed him for an Italian magazine, Frank Capra often talked about how great an actress my mother was when he saw her perform on the stage in Europe, South America, and even in New York.
One day in 1946, my agent got a call from Frank Capra’s secretary saying that Mr. Capra would like to interview me for a role in one of his next pictures. I read a scene from the movie for him and he said, “No need to do more. Welcome to It’s a Wonderful Life, Mrs. Martini.”
Argentina Brunetti’s book “In Sicilian Company” is available from BearManor Media, P. O. Box 750, Boalsburg, PA 16827 and is reasonably priced at $18.95 plus $2.00 postage. It can be ordered on line at www.bearmanormedia.com
She also has a web site: http://www.argentinabrunetti.com and it features a question and answer section, along with dozens of photos.
Editor's Note: Shortly after going to press with this story, Miss Brunetti passed away on December 20, 2005. Her book is still available from the publisher, BearManor Media.