Peter Gonzales Falcon Revisits “Fellini’s Roma”
After a long wait the entertainingly off-beat movie Fellini’s Roma (1972), director Federico Fellini’s “love letter” to his beloved Eternal City, has been released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. The spectacularly produced movie featuring sumptuous production design is essentially divided into three parts as it blends “past and present reality” and Fellini’s “particular kind of fantasy.” The first two segments are autobiographical in nature with Fellini as a young man who comes to Rome in the thirties with an ambition to become a journalist and what happened after during the war years. The third part of the movie takes place in then current time of 1971 and is more documentary in style. Peppered throughout are cameos from the likes of Gore Vidal and Anna Magnani in her last film appearance.
The Blu-Ray features many extras including deleted scenes; trailers; a booklet; and commentaries from film historians and friends of Fellini. The one extra obviously missing is remembrances from the film’s star Peter Gonzales Falcon who symbolized a young Fellini during the thirties and forties segments. When asked if they contacted him to participate, the actor replied, “No, I am out in the boonies in Texas and have been here for a long time. Maybe they didn’t know how to reach me. Also I don’t think there has been much of an institutionalized response to my work for whatever reason. I look at a lot of books on Fellini and only a very few even include me in them.”
Peter Gonzales Falcon acting career literally began as a Hollywood fairy tale. A senior majoring in Drama/Speech at Texas State University now called Southwest Texas State University, in 1968 he accompanied a female friend to an open casting call for the movie comedy Viva Max filming on location in Texas. While waiting in an outer room, he heard someone yell, “That face!” That someone was director Jerry Paris and it was tall, dark-haired Mexican-American Gonzales Falcon’s handsome chiseled face that got Paris excited. After reading for the director, Peter got the role as one of the Mexican soldiers who accompany General Peter Ustinov when he recaptures the Alamo. Others in the cast included Jonathan Winters, John Astin, Keenan Wynn, Alice Ghostley, and Kenneth Mars.
Knowing it was going to be at least a twelve week shoot including time in Italy to shoot interiors, the excited young man decided to drop out of school to pursue his dream of acting. An extra added bonus was that the movie’s leading lady was stunning Pamela Tiffin returning to make her first American film since departing for Rome in 1967. “She was a big movie star. I first saw her in State Fair and then in another film. I thought she was just wonderful and very beautiful.” You can read more about Peter’s experiences on Viva Max in my book Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974.
After Viva Max completed filming in Rome, Gonzales moved to London where he modeled for a year. He was back in Italy to try to ignite his acting career and boy did he—landing the lead role in Federico Fellini’s opulent Roma (1972) while simultaneously shooting another movie L’ospite/The Guest (1971) for director Liliana Cavani. Describing the plot of the latter, Peter remarked, “The film was a complex story-within-a-story. I played a young catatonic man in an insane asylum put there by his family. Lucia Bosé [who had just prior appeared in Fellini Satyricon] was a big Italian movie star and still is. She played my caretaker in the asylum and starts having fantasies about me in the film because her cousin was killed by the Nazis in the town square and they put her in the asylum when she was about fifteen years old.” According to preeminent Italian film historian and author Roberto Curti (whose most recent books include Tonino Valerii: The Films and Diabolika: Supercriminals, Superheroes and the Comic Book Universe in Italian Cinema), “the film’s main protagonist was a writer (Glauco Mauri) who reports about the conditions in psychiatric hospitals (a very heartfelt theme at the period, which resulted in1978’s Legge Basaglia about the reform of Italian asylums).”
When The Guest was released, Gonzales received a nice review in Variety that described him as “a fresh and sensitive new face in a dual role as inmate and flashback romantic.” However, per Roberto Curti, The Guest “was badly received by critics, even by those who had praised Cavani’s previous films, from Francesco to I cannibali. Its grosses were allegedly very low (they are not even listed in the Platea in piedi book, which means they were minimal.”
In the autobiographical and much more successful Fellini’s Roma, Peter essentially portrayed a young Federico Fellini as he encountered the city for the first time during the thirties. With minimal dialog, the talented actor is able to embody Fellini and capture the viewer’s attention throughout the movie as his young man is first welcomed into the home of a friend of his mother’s and experiences the chaotic city from dining a fresco on city streets, to its brothels with aging broken down prostitutes and music halls. When the movie debuted in 1972, it received very good notices (it was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival) but is not considered top tier Fellini by most due to its irreverent pacing and storytelling. The review from Variety was typical of the notices it received—“By any measure, Roma is a fascinating film. It does not entirely reflect, however, Fellini’s exceptional talent as a creative filmmaker.”
The Guest and Fellini’s Roma brought Peter Gonzales notoriety and his agent had film roles lined up for him in Italy. A family crisis, however, brought him back to Texas and he never returned to Rome. When Peter did resume his acting career, he made some movies in Mexico and then went to Hollywood where he landed small roles in TV and film most notably in The End (1978). This was directed by Burt Reynolds who starred as man with a blood disease who has one year to live and decides to off himself in twenty-four hours. Peter played the Spanish-speaking boy-toy date of Reynolds’ uncaring ex-wife (Joanne Woodward). Gonzales covers her with kisses while Reynolds tries to tell her of his situation but she is only focused on her Latin Lover boy toy to his chagrin. The pair bolt before can Reynolds can tell her he is dying.
Peter acted intermittently through the eighties (Heartbreaker, 1983; Houston: The Legend of Texas, 1986-TVM) and then took a respite from acting. Living a quiet life in San Antonio, Texas, he was lured back to movies in 2006 to play a police officer in Bordertown starring Jennifer Lopez and Martin Sheen. His most recent movie is the dark comedy Tiramisu for Two (2016), in which he plays a phony Italian chef named Valentino who disrupts an Italian man’s search in Texas for his lost love who he met in Italy thirty years before.
What did you think of director Jerry Paris who discovered you for Viva Max?
I always found Jerry Paris to be a wonderful person. Later, I would visit him when I would come into Hollywood from Italy. I’d call him and he would always invite me to the set of whatever he was working on. I think at that time it was Happy Days and we would hang out.
Some of the actors I interviewed for my Pamela Tiffin book regarding Viva Max were frustrated with Jerry Paris for allowing all the ad-libbing done by Jonathan Winters and others. They felt he had no control. Larry Hankin (one of the Mexican soldiers) in particular was very vocal and admitted to arguing with the director. Were you aware of this?
Yes, Jerry Paris told Larry Hankin off in front of everyone. He accused Larry of having no respect. He just told him point blank and I guess that didn’t sit very well with Larry. I didn’t have much to do with Larry but it seemed to me he was very cocky and disrespectful. I think he came from a comedy troupe. I remember that the actors and crew from LA were unhappy. I don’t know why—they had a nice job for a good length of time. I guess that’s the nature of the business when you are from the West Coast.
What do you remember about Peter Ustinov and John Astin?
Ustinov was very friendly, but he made a lot of faces all the time. I guess that happens when you are in the business that long. John Astin was just a nice man and very elegant—always dressed-to-the-tees off-camera. But it wasn’t like I was hanging out with them—it wasn’t until we got to Italy where I socialized with them more. In Texas, they were just so surrounded with people.
Being Hispanic, did it upset you that so many Caucasian actors were hired to play Mexicans?
Well that was just the way it was in those days. Mexican people were much oppressed back then. My family did work a lot to make political change and so did I. Unfortunately, the film industry is still kind of like that. It was maybe not as frustrating because people didn’t set their eyes on it so much.
Beyond that, you are living the reality and I thought the actors did pretty well to me. The whole Mexican thing is so relative to how you perceive it as is the American because it is a nation of people with different bloods. People don’t realize that. I personally found the whole movie offensive and never bothered to see it.
Interiors for Viva Max were filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Was this your first time in Italy?
Yes it was. You know before I went to Rome I really hadn’t been anywhere other than California and Mexico. It was another world to go to Italy in the late 1960s. It was very racist in Texas in those days. It still is but it is a different world now as it has gentrified. I had wanted to be an actor as long as I could remember. When I got off the plane in Italy everyone looked like my family. I decided to just to stay there.
He was filming Stayricon. But no, I didn’t meet Fellini until a couple of years later. After Viva Max wrapped I moved to London and worked as a model for about a year. I was brought back to Italy by an agency in Rome to read for Franco Zefferelli for the lead in Brother Sun, Sister Moon. When it didn’t work out with Zefferelli, a friend suggested that I call Eugene Walter. I did and we made a lunch date. Eugene was this wonderful gentleman from Mobile, Alabama. He was one of those actors who went off to be become an ex-pat living in Europe. Besides acting, he would translate Italian scripts into English and English scripts into Italian for just about all of the producers at that time including Federico Fellini. He was very well-known and respected in the business. He was working on the English version of Fellini’s script and knew he was looking for an actor for the lead. He thought I was the one. During lunch, he called Fellini and suggested I meet with him. Eugene was also working on a script for Liliana Cavani and contacted her on my behalf as well.
Did you have any representation in Italy at this time?
I sort had a new agent whose name was Roberto Romani and his partner was Giovannella Di Corsivo. I liked her name Giovannella—the jewel of the cosmos. She was this glamorous older lady. I went to their office after lunch and told Roberto that Eugene said that he should arrange a time for me to meet the director. He couldn’t believe he had to call Fellini. I said, ‘Pick up the phone and call Fellini.’ He still couldn’t. I dialed it for him and handed him the phone. I think Liliana Betti [Federico Fellini’s longtime assistant] answered and told him to send me over in the morning. I was slated to fly back to London later in the day.
What was your meeting with Fellini like?
I went to Cinecittà where there was a line about a block long with young men wanting to meet Fellini. I went around the line to the main door and buzzed. The door was opened by Liliana who looked like a little Edward G. Robinson and even had a cigar in her mouth. I said in Italian, ‘Eugene told me to come over today.’ She replied, ‘Eugenio!’ She brought me right in and I went up to Fellini’s office. He was sitting at his desk just being himself. He asked me to walk in a circle around the room. That kind of pissed me off. I didn’t like it because it was weird. Why did I have to walk in a circle? In those days, bell bottoms and flair pants were in. I was wearing a casual kind of woolen suit. I asked, ‘Do you want to see my legs too?’ I pulled up my pants and then said, ‘here are my knees.” I was a feisty uppity young guy back then. He just sat there and called Liliana over. In Italian, he told her I was ‘handsome and particular.’ They looked at me and Fellini told me to come back in two weeks and we’ll get started. I said, “Okay, thank you.’ And I left.
You must have been ecstatic.
I had been through a lot. By the time I was eighteen I had already lived in Italy while doing Viva Max. The film crisis hit and there was no work in Rome. Now here I was back from London for a day and a half and I just didn’t believe it. I honestly forgot about it. Two and a half weeks later, I am still in London and the phone rings. It was my agent Roberto who said, ‘Where are you!?! You are supposed to be in Rome and they have started shooting.’ The next thing you know my life changed again and I was back in Rome.
You really forgot that Fellini cast you in his movie?
Honestly, I didn’t think about it too much because I didn’t believe it. I don’t think I believed in anything about humanity. I think it had to do with being Mexican-American. Back then we were taught that we weren’t going to get what we wanted. I didn’t think about wanting anything but I always got everything. I was raised in South Texas and it was very racist. I thought I was very homely looking because the attitudes of the white people towards us. I had a very strong family and strong sense of self, but there was the outside world in Texas. I grew up in a time where I saw signs that read, ‘No dogs, n-ggers, or Mexicans served here.’ In a way it didn’t affect me because it was the fifties before civil rights. It is kind of like now again. That is why I am not afraid of anything now because I grew up with all of that. I did get along and had a lot of good friends who were white Anglos but there was always that underlining thing where you had to know your place.
So going back to Roma, I always wanted to be an actor and I loved acting, but I just didn’t believe I got the part. But I guess I was the one.
When you arrived on set were you handed a script?
Fellini had mimeographed notes in Italian. There were scenes that he wrote out but said it was more so for the producers and that he really didn’t care about the script. It wasn’t written like a screenplay. It was a narrative and more like a synopsis of what we were going to do. That was it.
For instance, we were given lines to say when I arrive in Rome at the house of my mother’s friend. There was not much dialog and it was like pantomime in a lot of ways. Visually you could catch on that there was a mama’s boy and the fat lady in the bed owned the house. There was the Chinese man cooking in the room and this famous Italian theater actress played the lady who greeted me at the door. I was responding to situations like Fellini would have responded when he was young.
No, I had studied Latin in high school and I spoke Spanish so I was able to pick up Italian quickly and get by. But it didn’t matter what language you spoke since they dubbed everything though Fellini did shoot sound on this. Sometimes you would be able to dub with your own voice.
What was like to work on that set with Fellini?
He was wonderful and always kind and nice to me. However, I saw him pitch fits if somebody didn’t give him what he wanted. I never had any problems with him. Then and even now I think what’s the big deal, let’s just do the scene.
He was really intelligent—a genius. What I mean by that is that in the old sense that he had his vision and his revelations for every scene right down to the sets and costumes—every stitch was according to his specifications divinely guided I guess. It was fabulous watching Fellini direct
What was it like doing Roma and Cavani’s The Guest at the same time?
The directors had to trade me back and forth. Their directing styles were quite different. Liliana had a script for one. She was an intellectual and reminded me of a shorter version of Susan Sontag. She would come over and tell me exactly what she wanted me to do.
Working with Liliana Cavani sounds like it was a more conventional way of making a movie as compared to working with Fellini.
Yes, you are right. With Fellini I had to fulfill his vision. He could see what he wanted and visualized all of the scenes in his mind. We were supposed to fit into the scenes exactly the way he pictured. I have a really powerful spiritual life. My mom was clairvoyant. Somehow in Europe I always connected with my directors. Fellini and Liliana Cavani knew exactly what they wanted me to do and since I am a chameleon-type who can transform I became exactly what they wanted me to be.
Sometimes it would make me angry because I didn’t feel that it was going to do me any good to work with him. It wasn’t what people thought acting a part was so I got this brilliant idea to create worlds within myself that would kind of make me a more pure presence in the film that could stand up to time rather than become dated. I started really connecting with the Holy Spirit and other spiritual parts of myself. I think this came out in the streetcar sequence. I tested Fellini in something I thought was impossible to notice.
What did you do in this scene?
I was hanging from the streetcar. He had me hold on to the bars while the streetcar went around. This portion was shot on the actual streets of Rome while the rest was done on a set in Cinecittà. I went into my yoga meditation, if you want to call it that, trying to visualize the ascension in myself, but I really was just some kid in a white suit hanging from a streetcar. All of a sudden, from like two blocks away where they had their telephoto lens, I heard this scream in Italian, “Cut! I see Jesus! I don’t know why but stop that!” I said, “Okay, I’ll behave.”
Roma was a big production. How long was the shoot?
I worked on this movie for forty-one weeks. That was wonderful. I worked on Viva Max for over twelve weeks and then Roma. I thought acting was a steady job.
Yes, it was. Everybody had to know what they had to do and do it exactly how Fellini instructed. The woman on the rooftop, the woman walking across the street, the people eating—everything was totally controlled by him.
Another favorite is the brothel scene.
I absolutely remember this. I have no sense of time between then and now. I really don’t and remember it like yesterday. I used to hang out with the actresses playing the whores. We’d chat and smoke cigarettes. Most of them were older middle class ladies. They all liked me because I was a cute young man.
One of the ladies was really upset that she had to show her breasts. Her son was now in college and told her she should be alive and get her own life and try acting again like she did before she married. She’d say to me, ‘Look at me. I am playing a whore in this brothel and my son and husband and everybody is going to see it.’ I told her that she was an actress and she had to be ready to bare her body and soul because this was going to hang around for centuries. It would cheer her up and she would keep going. She was really cute and her family owned a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. She invited me to visit and stay with her. I was getting all kinds of invitations from these wonderful Italian people.
A number of big names appeared in cameos or just stopped by to watch the shoot.
I remember hanging out on the set with Josephine Baker and her kids. Gore Vidal was there. People were always just dropping in. I would just chat them up. Sometimes I didn’t even know who they were. I didn’t realize I was talking to Josephine Baker for half a day. We were just having a blast. It was a great experience for a novice in that world.
Anna Magnani would come to the set and the rushes. She was a tough lady and no-nonsense. If she liked you, she liked you. She was very pretty with finely chiseled bone structure and a curvy figure. I always thought she was kind of fat and big from watching her on the screen. We’d sit next to each other and watch. She really liked me. I was kind of intimidated by her but we had fun together. When Fellini would walk in, he’d greet her and she’d say, ‘Okay Federico, show me your little movie.’ He’d tried to please her because he obviously adored her. She was just Anna Magnani!
Do you recall anything about cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno or production designer Danilo Donati? Both worked frequently with Fellini and their work here is spectacular.
I didn’t have a lot to do with Rotunno. He was there every day but he was caught up in shooting the movie and discussing shots with Fellini. He was very nice to me obviously if you see the film.
I became closer friends with Danilo. I would look at his sketches and hang out with him as he discussed with Fellini the costumes and what fabrics he would use. He had a whole big area at the studio where he created everything. Fellini was very particular and would work with everybody to get the look he wanted.
I had long hair and they did work on it. They made it straight but Fellini had long hair. When I first met him at the interview I wore a collarless shirt with a nice suit. I had a very 1970s Bohemian look. Apparently, that was exactly the kind of young man he had been and he was out of the norm for his time. He had long hair also so he connected with me on that. My hair was styled like the way he wore it and not the way I wore it. He was chubby when I met him but he was thin like me when he was younger. And they called him like they called me ‘magro come un chiodo—skinny like a nail.’
When did you first see the movie and did you like?
I don’t remember when I saw the movie for the first time, honestly. I only recall watching the rushes. I would get angry with Fellini and say to him that the film will not look like anything to anybody. Looking back on it and understanding what had I to do for him, it was very subtle and delicate. And more challenging than anything an actor has to do. However, people really don’t get it. They just think I am a nice presence—well yeah but it is a very connected pure essence of who Fellini was when he came to Rome. Unlike Fellini’s other movies, Roma was a like a documentary in so many ways.
Roma brought you a lot of attention but you didn’t follow up with any Italian movies. Why?
I had a whole lineup of film offers to do in Italy. As fate would have it and being a Mexican-American, I was very tied to my family and there was an illness and a death. I just stopped and came back to Texas and never went back. I wasn’t even in Rome when the movie opened.
In 1974, I moved to Mexico City and acted in movies there. Everywhere I’d go, I got work more on the weight of my person and my looks then my credits. I really didn’t use the prestige [of doing Fellini’s Roma] that could have brought me. In Mexico of course they knew of Fellini, but not in Texas. Then I got some acting jobs in LA and worked in Louisiana. I finished my degrees and taught film making. I would work in movies occasionally, but I was just so interested in everything else that life had to offer.
What was it like working with Burt Reynolds who starred in and directed The End?
Working with Burt Reynolds and being on the set while also working with such stars as Myrna Loy, Jackie Coogan, Joanne Woodward, Dom DeLuise, and Sally Field was absolutely living the dream. Burt Reynolds was a total mensch and an endearing person. The cast and crew were all devoted to him and it appeared it was a joy for all to be a part of that filming. That kind of collective happiness and camaraderie was a very rare situation on Hollywood sets and it seems it only happens when one is working with true stars.
In one of my scenes I prepared to get into the Rolls Royce (a gift from Dinah Shore) that my character drives to pick up his date who happened to be Burt’s ex-wife (Joanne Woodward). As the scene was about to be filmed, Burt laughingly came up to me and gave me some direction. He unexpectedly removed a gold chain with a large gold nugget he was wearing and placed it around my neck to wear. After the take, I was looking at the inscription on the nugget when Sally Field asked about it. The inscription said ‘LOVE DINAH.’ The whole set was excited and abuzz with that note. I got to wear the nugget for the shoot.
I directed a documentary and am writing a TV pilot for a series set here in San Antonio. Ironically, I worked on a movie called Tiramisu for Two. There is this group of Italian descended young people in their twenties and thirties from America and Venezuela who love Fellini. A lot of them went through the film program at the University of Texas in Austin. They go off to New York and other places, but return to Texas to make independent films.
Did they know going in that you worked with Fellini?
I am probably the only living Fellini star in this country and from Texas. Yes, they knew that going in as I have a page about me in Roma on Facebook. I finally decided to get my stuff together and put it out there on the web. I haven’t done a great job of it but think it is pretty nice. The director of Tiramisu for Two is named Sergio Carbajal. He contacted me and asked if I would be in his film. They were shooting in San Marcos Texas, where I was going to school when I dropped out to do Viva Max. I thought it was like coming full circle. I am reaching a point in life where I beginning to see how everything kind of ties together ultimately if you let it.
I told them I would help them and they really have come up with a good film. We became very close and they called me ‘Maestro.