ROME – Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who discovered a teenage Sophia Loren, launched her film career and later married her despite threats of bigamy charges and excommunication, has died in Geneva. He was 94.
Ponti died overnight at a Geneva hospital, his family said Wednesday. He had been hospitalized about 10 days earlier for pulmonary complications, it said.
He produced more than 100 films, including "Doctor Zhivago," "The Firemen's Ball," and "The Great Day," which were nominated for Oscars. Other major films included "Blow-Up," "The Cassandra Crossing," "The Verdict" and "The Squeeze."
In 1956, "La Strada," which he co-produced, won the Academy Award for best foreign film, as did "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" in 1964.
But it was his affair with the young ingenue Loren that captivated the public, rather than his work with top filmmakers such as Dino De Laurentiis, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Ustinov, David Lean and Roman Polanski.
"I have done everything for love of Sophia," he said in a newspaper interview shortly before his 90th birthday in 2002. "I have always believed in her."
Born near Milan in the small town of Magenta on Dec. 11, 1912, Ponti studied law and worked as a lawyer before moving into film production in the late 1930s.
He was married to his first wife, Giuliana, when he met Loren — then Sofia Lazzaro — about 1950. At the time she was only 15 — a quarter-century younger than Ponti.
They tried to keep their relationship a secret despite huge media interest, while Ponti's lawyers went to Mexico to obtain a divorce from his first wife.
Ponti and Loren were married by proxy in Mexico in 1957 — two male attorneys took their place and the happy couple only found out when the news was broken by society columnist Louella Parsons.
But they were unable to beat stringent Italian divorce laws and the wrath of the Roman Catholic church. Ponti was charged with bigamy.
"I was being threatened with excommunication, with the everlasting fire, and for what reason? I had fallen in love with a man whose own marriage had ended long before," Loren has said.
"I wanted to be his wife and have his children. We had done the best the law would allow to make it official, but they were calling us public sinners," she said. "We should have been taking a honeymoon, but all I remember is weeping for hours."
The couple first lived in exile and then, after the annulment of their Mexican marriage, in secret in Italy.
During this period, Ponti produced the film "La Ciociara" — known in English as "Two Women" — for which Loren won a best actress Oscar in 1962, and contributed significantly to the development of French New Wave cinema in his collaboration with Godard.
Ponti and Loren finally beat Italian law by becoming French citizens — the approval was signed personally by French President Georges Pompidou — and they married for a second time in Paris in 1966.
Despite many predictions that the marriage would founder over Ponti's affairs and the many dashing leading men who reportedly fell in love with Loren, the couple stayed together.
Ponti had several other brushes with the law.
He was briefly imprisoned in by the Fascist government in Italy during World War II for producing "Piccolo Mondo Antico," which was considered anti-German. An Italian court later gave Ponti a six-month suspended sentence for his 1973 film "Massacre in Rome," which claimed Pope Pius XII did nothing about the execution of Italian hostages by the Germans. The charges eventually were dropped on appeal.
Though Loren was better-known, Ponti amassed a fortune considerably greater than that of his wife — and again fell foul of the Italian authorities.
In 1979, a court in Rome convicted him in absentia of the illegal transfer of capital abroad and sentenced him to four years in prison and a $24 million fine.
Loren, along with film stars Ava Gardner and Richard Harris, were acquitted of conspiracy.
It took Ponti until the late 1980s to settle his legal problems and finally obtain the return of his art collection, which had been seized by authorities and given to Italian museums.
He also survived two kidnapping attempts in 1975.
Ponti discovered many of the great Italian leading ladies, including Gina Lollobrigida, and had affairs with several. "I don't like actors. I prefer women," he said at the time.
In recent years, the couple lived mostly in Switzerland, where they had several homes. Despite reports that he was seriously ill, Ponti attended the 1998 Venice Film Festival to accept a lifetime achievement award for his wife, who was kept away by illness.
Ponti had two sons with Loren — Carlo Jr., a celebrated conductor, and Edoardo, a film producer. He also had two children from his first marriage, Guendolina and Alexander.
No date was given for a funeral, but the family said it would be "strictly private."