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“Once Upon a Time in America” ruined Sergio Leone’s health and was the last film he directed

Goran Blazeski
Getty Images
Getty Images

Watching actors and directors walking the red carpets of the awards shows, drinking the finest champagne and laughing at the opening monologues of Ricky Gervais or whomever is hosting the show, can leave you feeling that they have the easiest job in the world.

However, being part of the movie industry requires painstaking determination, dedication, creativity, passion, and above all, a lot of patience. Even in the digital era, the process of making a movie can be quite exhausting, and creating a masterpiece can take its toll. Such is the case with the legendary director Sergio Leone, whose enigmatic gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America ruined his health and perhaps even contributed to his death.

Sergio Leone revolutionized the Western by setting the pace and tone of the genre and introduced us to the silent stranger in a series of Westerns we all cherish today.

Often referred to as the godfather of the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone is the man behind the classic Dollars trilogy, which consisted of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which gave the world Clint Eastwood.

The trilogy secured him a place in the annals of film history and many, including director Quentin Tarantino, consider it to be the greatest achievement in the history of cinema. The director, who has created some of the most iconic movies in recent times, including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and most recently The Hateful Eight,  cites The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his favorite film of all time.

However, Leone’s mission was not yet finished, and more than a decade after he filmed the trilogy he was determined to add another masterpiece to his collection. Once Upon a Time in America was his final and arguably most ambitious project, but the ambition took its toll and the consequences were devastating for the director.

Leone had been interested in making the movie ever since he finished filming Once Upon a Time in the West, back in 1968. In fact, he was hoping to start right away and even refused an offer to make The Godfather. However, all was not to go as smoothly as planned, and it took Leone over 13 years before he finally started his dream project.

Leone was famous for filming stories of the American West in Italy. For this movie, revolving around New York, he shot some exteriors in New York City, but most of the interiors in Cinecitta in Rome. A Manhattan restaurant was constructed in Venice; Grand Central Station was re-created in Paris. One scene was shot in Quebec. The shooting lasted nearly a year, leaving Leone with almost 10 hours’ worth of material.

The storyline ran on two timelines, telling the story of a violent, powerful gang of Jewish mobsters in New York City who gained their riches during Prohibition. He hoped that the studios would accept a long length, so he cut out four hours. He was wrong. The studios wouldn’t even hear of it, so he cut out an additional 90 minutes, but even that wasn’t enough to satisfy the studios and another 40 minutes were chopped out, leading to a 229-minute version that premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.


Starring Robert De Niro, Elizabeth McGovern, and James Woods, the movie was received well in Europe, but in the United States it garnered mixed reactions and there was a good reason for that: the movie had been chopped by an additional 90 minutes.

As stated by the famed film critic Roger Ebert, ” ‘Once Upon a Time in America,’ which in its intended 227-minute version is an epic poem of violence and greed, was chopped by ninety minutes for U.S. theatrical release into an incomprehensible mess without texture, timing, mood, or sense. The rest of the world saw the original film, which I saw at the Cannes Film Festival. In America, a tragic decision was made.” 

Read another story from us: Eli Wallach almost got killed three times during the filming of Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Leone, who had already embarked upon the sixth decade of his life when the gangster epic was released in 1984, simply couldn’t bear the problems caused by the long process of shooting and the series of butchers of the movie, and his health deteriorated. He was planning to work on a film of the Siege of Leningrad, but he didn’t get to the shooting stage. Leone had a heart attack in 1989. The icon of the spaghetti Western died on April 30, 1989.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News