Top Italian producer Carlo Ponti dies at 94

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ROME -- Producer Carlo Ponti, one of the forces behind Italy's post-war film renaissance and the longtime husband of Italian film legend Sophia Loren, died early Wednesday at the age of 94.

Ponti produced more than 100 films during a career that spanned nearly 60 years. Among his most famous productions were David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago"(1965), Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954) and Vittorio De Sica's 1960 classic "La Ciociara" (Two Women), for which Loren won the 1962 Oscar for best actress.

"His was a life dedicated to cinema," Loren and her two sons, Carlo and Edoardo, said in a statement. "Surrounded by the love of his family, Carlo Ponti passed away serenely at the age of 94 during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva's hospital."

Ponti, who had been in relatively good health until December, had been admitted to the Geneva hospital on New Year's Eve for lung problems.

Ponti got his start in the industry distributing films in Milan during World War II. He produced a few small films during the war and immediately afterward, but began to make a name for himself with director Riccardo Freda's 1948 production of "Les Miserables."

Ponti met Loren, named Sophia Villani Scicolone at the time, during a beauty contest in Naples in the 1950s and persuaded her to change her name to Sophia Loren and begin studying acting and English. They were married in 1957.

In 1956, "La Strada," which he co-produced, won the Academy Award for best foreign film, as did "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" in 1964.

But it was his affair with the young ingenue Loren that captivated the public, rather than his work with top filmmakers such as Dino De Laurentiis, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Ustinov, David Lean and Roman Polanski.

"I have done everything for love of Sophia," he said in a newspaper interview shortly before his 90th birthday in 2002. "I have always believed in her."

Born near Milan in the small town of Magenta on Dec. 11, 1912, Ponti studied law and worked as a lawyer before moving into film production in the late 1930s.

He was married to his first wife, Giuliana, when he met Loren -- then Sofia Lazzaro -- about 1950. At the time she was only 15 -- a quarter-century younger than Ponti.

They tried to keep their relationship a secret despite huge media interest, while Ponti's lawyers went to Mexico to obtain a divorce from his first wife.

Ponti and Loren were married by proxy in Mexico in 1957 -- two male attorneys took their place and the happy couple only found out when the news was broken by society columnist Louella Parsons.

But they were unable to beat stringent Italian divorce laws and the wrath of the Roman Catholic church. Ponti was charged with bigamy.

"I was being threatened with excommunication, with the everlasting fire, and for what reason? I had fallen in love with a man whose own marriage had ended long before," Loren has said.

"I wanted to be his wife and have his children. We had done the best the law would allow to make it official, but they were calling us public sinners," she said. "We should have been taking a honeymoon, but all I remember is weeping for hours."

The couple first lived in exile and then, after the annulment of their Mexican marriage, in secret in Italy.

During this period, Ponti produced the film "La Ciociara" -- known in English as "Two Women" -- for which Loren won a best actress Oscar in 1962, and contributed significantly to the development of French New Wave cinema in his collaboration with Godard.

Ponti and Loren finally beat Italian law by becoming French citizens -- the approval was signed personally by French President Georges Pompidou -- and they married for a second time in Paris in 1966.

Despite many predictions that the marriage would founder over Ponti's affairs and the many dashing leading men who reportedly fell in love with Loren, the couple stayed together.

Ponti had several other brushes with the law.

He was briefly imprisoned in by the Fascist government in Italy during World War II for producing "Piccolo Mondo Antico," which was considered anti-German. An Italian court later gave Ponti a six-month suspended sentence for his 1973 film "Massacre in Rome," which claimed Pope Pius XII did nothing about the execution of Italian hostages by the Germans. The charges eventually were dropped on appeal.

Though Loren was better-known, Ponti amassed a fortune considerably greater than that of his wife -- and again fell foul of the Italian authorities.

In 1979, a court in Rome convicted him in absentia of the illegal transfer of capital abroad and sentenced him to four years in prison and a $24 million fine.

Loren, along with film stars Ava Gardner and Richard Harris, were acquitted of conspiracy.

It took Ponti until the late 1980s to settle his legal problems and finally obtain the return of his art collection, which had been seized by authorities and given to Italian museums.

He also survived two kidnapping attempts in 1975.

Ponti discovered many of the great Italian leading ladies, including Gina Lollobrigida, and had affairs with several. "I don't like actors. I prefer women," he said at the time.

In recent years, the couple lived mostly in Switzerland, where they had several homes. Despite reports that he was seriously ill, Ponti attended the 1998 Venice Film Festival to accept a lifetime achievement award for his wife, who was kept away by illness.

Ponti had two sons with Loren -- Carlo Jr., a celebrated conductor, and Edoardo, a film producer. He also had two children from his first marriage, Guendolina and Alexander.

No date was given for a funeral, but the family said it would be "strictly private."

Associated Press contributed to this report.
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