Malibu’s Villa Francesca estate and its prolific owner
Richard Harrison is a cult figure among fans of B-movie, sword and sandal, spaghetti western and ‘euro spy’
By Jimy Tallal, special for the Malibu Times
The location of the jaw-dropping “Villa Francesca” estate and its immediate vicinity has got to be one of Malibu’s best-kept secrets, and owners Richard and Francesca Harrison would like it to stay that way — so mom is the word. When the couple bought the property in 1987, there were quite a few lore attached to it – including stories that the Beach Boys, Charles Manson, James Mason and Edgar Allen Poe’s grandson had all dragged there -down several times.
But an even more interesting story is the story of Richard Harrison himself. He came to Malibu more or less full-time in 1987 after spending nearly 30 years overseas as a lead actor in 135 films. He is little known in English-speaking countries, which suits him because he likes his privacy. But Harrison has become a cult figure among fans of B-movie, sword and sandal, spaghetti western and “euro-spy”.
It all started in the 1950s, when Harrison arrived in Hollywood fresh from Utah, hoping to find work in the film industry. Due to his physique and striking good looks, he was soon placed under contract by 20th Century Fox and given acting lessons; and landed small roles in the then-popular gladiator and Hercules genre – also known as “sword and sandal” films.
During this time, he was first introduced to Malibu – his friends, actor Jack Warden and director Charles Walters – had homes in The Colony and played penny-ante poker on the weekends.
Hoping to become more of a leading man than a minor player, Harrison was lured overseas to Italy on a three-movie deal. Italy started making American-style cowboy movies — “spaghetti westerns” — and Harrison got into that craze. Although he spoke no Italian, he spoke his lines in English, which were later dubbed into other languages.
Harrison’s first Italian film and starring role was “The Invincible Gladiator” (1962), but his best-known films from this era include “Gunfight at Red Sands” (1963) and “Secret Agent Fireball” (1965).
When Harrison turned down the lead role in “For a Fistful of Dollars,” the Italian filmmakers read him the names of three Hollywood actors sent to them and asked him to recommend one. The list included Clint Eastwood and Malibu resident James Brolin. Harrison knew all three and recommended Eastwood because he could ride a horse. The role catapulted Eastwood to stardom in the United States
Harrison learned horseback riding, sword fighting, and chariot racing; and often performed his own stunts because he was left-handed. “The tanks don’t have springs, and it was boom, boom, boom,” he recalls. “And if there were sand holes in the ground, the horses could walk in them and you would fall.”
The downside of doing these action movies was that safety rules were seemingly non-existent on overseas sets. “I saw a lot of people killed and injured in those movies,” Harrison said. “Even foul bullets can be powerful and almost accidentally blow a guy’s face off.” During a filming in Brazil, he saw an actor whose parachute did not open after jumping from the plane – it had been folded incorrectly. He saw people on set badly burned by explosions and fires in the Philippines, Turkey and Taiwan.
The advantage was living in Europe, with the great art and good food of the world. Harrison enjoyed “visiting new countries and new continents.” In Egypt, in his spare time, he climbed to the top of one of the great pyramids, which was illegal. “A lot of people fell and died in their attempts because the bricks were crumbling and it was dangerous. Looking from the top, there is no slope.
In Spain, Harrison got to know all the bullfighters and, because most came from poor families, said, “They were more worried about tearing up their [expensive] disguises than to die.
During the 1970s, Italians began making ultra-violent cop films, and he starred in several, including ‘Mad Dog Killer’ and ‘Beast with a Gun’ (1977). Quentin Tarantino was such a fan of “Beast” that he slipped an excerpt from it on a television watched by Bridget Fonda in his film “Jackie Brown” (1997).
When Italian cinema began to decline in the 1980s, Harrison set his sights on leading roles in so-called “Z” ninja films shot in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Unfortunately, he learned too late that in Hong Kong they would dishonestly edit footage from different movies to make a new movie. So while Harrison may have shot scenes for one movie, those same scenes would be spliced into ten other very low quality movies.
After decades of constant work, he returned to the United States and made a few more films before retiring. Speaking about his career, Harrison said, “I enjoyed it. I never had a big ego because I always thought about my luck and I was always treated well.