Antonio Sabàto, Spaghetti Western Leading Man, Dies at 77

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

As a boy growing up in Palermo, Sicily, in the 1950s, Antonio Sabàto dreamed of becoming a movie star.

He’d sneak into cinemas to watch the latest films of Luchino Visconti. He ran away from home more than once to infiltrate the Cinecittà film studio in Rome and try to talk his way into jobs. He adored American movies and idolized Marlon Brando.

Mr. Sabàto realized his ambition: He became a popular Italian actor known for his roles in a gamut of spaghetti westerns and action movies from the 1960s through the 1980s. Among them were “Beyond the Law,” with Lee Van Cleef, and “Twice a Judas,” with Klaus Kinski, both from 1968.

In 1983, he played the resistance leader Dablone in the cult classic “Escape From the Bronx.”

Mr. Sabàto died at 77 on Jan. 10 at a hospice in Hemet, Calif. The cause was complications of Covid-19, his son, the actor Antonio Sabàto Jr., said.

Antonio Sr. was born on April 2, 1943, in Montelepre, a town outside Palermo. His father, Giuseppe, was a port manager in Palermo. His mother, Agata (Parinello) Sabàto, was a homemaker.

In an interview on Italian state television in his later years, Mr. Sabàto remembered an early break in the mid-1960s: The director Vittorio De Sica cast him in a bit part in the anthology film “The Witches” (1967). “That was my debut in cinema,” he said.

By the time that film was finally released, however, he had already caught a bigger break: being cast in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 car racing classic, “Grand Prix.” He starred as the Italian Formula One driver Nino Barlini, alongside James Garner and Yves Montand. The film won three Academy Awards, and Mr. Sabàto was recognized at the Golden Globes with a nomination for most promising newcomer.

“I was picked out of 2,000 people,” he said of the “Grand Prix” audition. “Evidently I was the one John Frankenheimer was looking for.” He added: “So I did ‘Grand Prix’ as one of its four protagonists. And I got to drive a Ferrari.”

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Living in Rome, Mr. Sabàto became part of the city’s glamorous international cultural scene. Stars like Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren frequented his dinner parties, and he befriended directors like Franco Zeffirelli.

But Mr. Sabàto dreamed of acting in America, and in the mid-1980s he moved to Los Angeles. Hollywood, though, wasn’t as welcoming as he thought it would be.

“They never treated him as a leading actor,” his son said. “The agents only sent him out for supporting roles: the cook or the chef. Why couldn’t he play the lawyer?” He added: “My dad was off the boat. If you had an accent, you didn’t have the same kind of opportunity here.”

But Mr. Sabàto embraced life in America and settled in California. He married Yvonne Saghy in 1971, and they divorced in the 1990s. In addition to his son, his survivors include a daughter, Simonne Sabàto, and three grandchildren.

In his later years he traveled to Sicily frequently and relished boating. He enjoyed attending the Indianapolis 500 with his old “Grand Prix” co-star, Mr. Garner, who died in 2014 at 86. And as the decades passed, his film legacy was revisited by fans of classic cinema in Italy.

That newfound interest included the Italian state television interview, a long recapping of his career. Mr. Sabàto was relaxing on a boat at a dock in Marina del Rey, Calif., when he was approached for the interview.

“Are you really Antonio Sabàto?” he was asked.

“From the very day I was born,” he replied.

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