The other day on TV, the RAI—the Italian state radio and television agency—presented the first in a series looking back at 50 years of television broadcasting in Italy.
One of the most poignant moments was the portion dedicated to the work of Alighiero Noschese, the Neapolitan who might have remained just another actor/comic in a profession awash with actors and comics had it not been for his uncanny ability to imitate others.
substantiate the anecdotes from his schooldays here in
Naples; for example, on the phone, "Hello, I can't come
to school today. I'm ill. This is my daddy speaking,"
—but it wouldn't surprise me. A woman I know who
remembers Noschese as a high school student in Naples
says that he didn't stand out: he was courteous and easy
to get along with, but not the life of the party, not
the person who just naturally seems born to entertain
and delight others —"anonymous" was the word she used.
That described him as an adult on the few occasions you
got to see him as himself and not in one of his comic
sketches. Who knows if that description was not at the
heart of his ultimate tragedy?
He was born in
Naples in 1932. By the late 1960s and all during the
70s, Noschese pretty much owned the field of imitating.
It was one that he invented, at least for Italians.
Before Noschese, it was not at all common to watch
comics get up and make fun of well-known persons in
public life. After Noschese, it was commonplace, as any
young comic/mimic in Italy will tell you. One of them
said, in tribute to Noschese, that "it was embarrassing
to see someone with so much talent."
Perhaps his secret
was that he didn't make fun of so much as have
fun with the people he imitated. I can't imagine
any of the prime ministers of Italy, the heads of
political parties, other actors, news commentators
—anyone at all— ever being offended. I saw him once live
on stage when he imitated Pope Paul VI. It wasn't in the
least offensive, and I'm sure the Pope loved it!
Noschese "did" all the prime ministers and politicians
in Italy to perfection; as well, his version of the
great director Fellini was hilarious, as was his
imitation of the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose excited,
incoherent readings of his own poetry on TV were funny
enough in their own right. Noschese did voices and body
mannerisms to perfection and then spent hours on make-up
to wind up looking as much as possible like his target.
Noschese took his
own life in 1979. He was being treated for depression,
and I have heard that he was found dead in front of a
statue of the Virgin Mary. His suicide sent a wave of
incomprehension through Italy... the funny guy, the
great mimic, why would he kill himself? Amateur analysts
speculate that his life was so devoted to imitating
others that he had no sense of self. Who knows.