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Marcello Mastroiani, 1924-1996

In Rome Thursday night, they turned off the water in the Trevi Fountain and draped the monument in black, in memory of Marcello Mastroianni. The Italian actor, who died early Thursday at his Paris home, made about 120 films, but was best remembered for Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960), in which he waded into the fountain in pursuit of an elusive sex goddess played by Anita Ekberg.

Mr. Mastroianni, 72, was the most famous European leading man of the postwar years, the alter-ego of Fellini in six films, the partner of Sophia Loren in 11, the leading man for all the great actresses of his time, including Monica Vitti, Brigitte Bardot, Giulietta Masina, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, Sonia Braga, Hanna Schygulla, Laura Antonelli, Ursula Andress, Shirley MacLaine and Catherine Deneuve, with whom he had a child in 1972.

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Deneuve and their daughter, Chiara, were at his bedside when he died, as was his wife, Flora, and their daughter Barbara. His good friend Michel Piccoli, the French actor, also was present. Mr. Mastroianni had pancreatic cancer, and concern for his health grew when he appeared to falter at last May's Cannes Film Festival.

Although he often played a lover, it was always with a dash of self-deprecating humor. He was often the passive target of admiring women, or their long-suffering partner, as in "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (1963), a trilogy in which one story involved keeping his wife (Loren) constantly pregnant so she could not be sent to prison.

His most famous role, launching a lifelong collaboration, was in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," in which he played a Roman night-life columnist who covers, and is destroyed by, the "sweet life" along the city's Via Veneto. The movie became the top-grossing subtitled film in U.S. history. Although it was listed as "condemned" at the time by the Catholic Legion of Decency, it made the Vatican's list of "great films" a few years ago.

Mr. Mastroianni played a role obviously modeled on Fellini - right down to his trademark hat - in "8 1/2" (1963), the story of a filmmaker harassed by women, producers and creditors while trying desperately to come up with an idea for his next project. They worked again in "Fellini's Roma" (1972), "City of Women" (1980), and "Ginger & Fred" (1986, with Mr. Mastroianni as an Italian version of Fred Astaire).

In Fellini's "Intervista" (1987), Fellini produced a haunting image that could serve as a coda to both their careers. At Rome's Cinecitta, the studio where they had both worked so often, director and star encounter each other, pile into a car and drive out to the home of Anita Ekberg, now grown plump, who greets them with delight. A bed sheet is turned into a movie screen in her living room, and the Trevi Fountain scene is projected onto it. Fellini frames Mastroianni and Ekberg in the foreground as they look at themselves 28 years earlier. It is a haunting shot about the nature of time and the movies.

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With Loren, his favorite acting partner, Mr. Mastroianni made such films as "Marriage Italian Style" (1964), "Sunflower" (1970), "The Priest's Wife" (1974) and "A Special Day" (1977). They teamed up most recently in Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear" (1994).

He was nominated for Academy Awards for his work in "A Special Day," as a suicidal homosexual who meets a weary housewife. He was also nominated for "Divorce, Italian Style" (1962) and "Dark Eyes" (1987), which won him the best actor award at Cannes. His most recent film, shown last spring at Cannes, is Raoul Ruiz's "Three Lives and Only One Death," a study in multiple identity, with Mr. Mastroianni playing three men who may, or may not, be different. His daughter Chiara is his co-star. It is soon going into U.S. release and is scheduled to open Feb. 28 at the Music Box in Chicago.

Mr. Mastroianni was born in 1924, near Rome. His father opposed formal education, and at 14, he went to work as a carpenter. He was working as a draftsman in Rome during World War II when he was sent to a labor camp by the Germans. He escaped, hid in Venice, and, after the war, drifted into acting. His first lead was in an Italian production of "Les Miserables" (1947), and he gained an international reputation with such comedies as "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958).

I interviewed him several times, and always found him bemused by those who took acting too seriously and incredulous at his reputation as a great lover. When I asked him once what his single favorite love scene was, he threw back his head, closed his eyes, thought deeply, and then said: "I like it when Minnie kisses Mickey, and little red hearts go pop-pop-pop, in the air." Contributing: Associated Press,

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