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.
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.