John Kitzmiller

John Kitzmiller was one of the most prominent Afro-American actors to work in Italy during the post war period.  Born in Michigan in 1913, he first came to Europe as a soldier during the liberation of Italy, winning a Victory Medal for his efforts.  He fell in love with the country, deciding to stay there rather than head home once the conflict was over, and soon drifted into acting, starting his career playing a stock selection of GIs and American expats.  In 1948 he had a career defining role in Alberto Lattuada’s Senza pietà, as a GI who becomes friendly with an Italian girl (played by Carla Del Poggio).  As well as bringing his face to the international arthouse crowd, this was a popular film on the US university circuit, where it gained a considerable following among Afro-American students.

John Kitzmiller in Dr. No
John Kitzmiller in Dr. No

More roles followed, although with the decline of neo-realism and the growing emphasis on using professional actors they shrunk in size.  He was a trumpet player in Luci del varietà (directed by Lattuada and a young Federico Fellini), played a valet in Marino Girolami’s Canto per te (a vehicle for the famed tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano), and appeared as a selection of servants, criminals or workmen.  With the resurgence of the swashbuckler and peplum in the 1950s his workrate stepped up a notch, and by the early 60s he was appearing in three or four films a year.

It was at this time that he won a further degree of international success, starring as Quarrel in the hugely succesful Dr No, where his role – most of which was shot in Jamaica – was more prominent than his lowly billing would suggest.  This led to one final key role, as the titular character in Géza von Radványi’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was released in the same year as his death in 1965 from cirrhosis of the liver (caused, reputedly, by his long term alcoholism).

Kitzmiller’s importance wasn’t so much for the films he appeared in – although he certainly appeared in some important films.  It was in the fact that he was a trailblazer for black actors both in Italy and in the US, at a time in which cinema was an almost entirely caucasian occupation.  Given that, it’s surprising how little biographical information is available about him.

About Matt Blake 867 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks Matt. I agree he was trailblazer in opening up roles for blacks in Italian cinema. Any fan of Italian films has heard of his name, but as you say so little biographical information is available. Thanks for posting on this unique actor in European films.

  2. A little bit more info on Mr. Kitzmiller. In a book on Fellini (Federico Fellini: his life and work by Tullio Kezich, Minna Proctor, Viviana Mazza), he’s described as: “a former chemical engineer who’d slipped accidentally into movie acting”

  3. And a bit more, an obituary from a magazine called Jet, March 11th 1965.

    John Kitzmiller, who became and Italian star, dies at 51.
    A husky American negro who became one of Italy’s most celebrated movie actors but never played in a film produced in his native land, John Kitzmiller, 51, died in Rome after a career that spanned 20 years. Kitzmiller, of Battle Creek, Mich., and a former captain of the Engineers with the famed Negro 92nd Division of World War 2, succumbed to a liver ailment just two months after he was wed to attractive, blond Dusia Bejic, a Yugoslav in Belgrade. Kitzmiller went overseas with the division in the dark days of WW2, but he never forgot his ambition to become an actor. After the war, he decided not to go home but settled in Italy, where he made his first film, To Live in Peace. He received rave notices. There followed a string of ten movies with good roles for Kitzmiller, establishing him, along with cinema-lovely Gina Lollobrigida, as the top motion star in the 1950s in Italy, where realism and authenticity in film making are the sought after ingredients, not the colour of an actor’s skin

    And, from From Sambo to Superspade by Daniel J. Leab

    John Kitzmiller became an actor while on occupation duty in Italy in 1946. He was playing poker in a sidewalk cafe when he was spotted by two Italians who thought him physically perfect for a war movie they were casting

  4. Hello,

    May I suggest you to enrich Wikipedia with your knowledge for there’s hardly any information about John Kitzmikller.
    I’d like to know how he met that blonde and if they maried soon or if they lived for many years before they got married.
    I personnally suspect that he might have been poisoned? Strange that he dies so young and only 2 months after his wedding. Moreover to some czec woman (eastern women are very good heritage hunters)Strange also that nothing exists about his biography. Usually, a widow tries to make the story of his died husband, to make the legend live, but here is like an omerta about his privacy…

  5. And here’s another newspaper article mentioning his marriage:

    John Kitzmiller's wedding article from Jet

    Luciano Benetti was a little known Italian actor who turned up in a handful of cape and sword films

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