Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Oct. 2003,  edit in Feb 2023

Alighiero Noschese

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. 

I can't 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 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", 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, about Noschese, "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 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?

part 2==22 Feb 2023=======================

                                          From Neo-Realism to No-Realism                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                                                                     Noschesi as Marlon Brando in The Godfather

I offer only that comedians often don't seem able to make themselves laugh. Noschese reminds me of another great comic who killed himself Robin Williams. The Sad Clown paradox, Pagliacci, laughing on the outside-crying on the inside our language is full of clichés about this. I am not qualified to speak on this, so I desist. I saw Noschese in person just once, when he did Pope Paul VI. His comment as he started tells you about the man. First, he flashed his radiant smile (like the sun going on in the theater) and said "Senza malizia" — (Without malice) We're just having some fun. He wanted you to have fun. I hate to think that being funny is a mental illness. Again, I desist.

When he started, no one in Italy did impersonations. After some theater, he quickly became popular with the TV show Doppia coppia [Double copy], where, for the first time on the then wholly state-controlled Italian television, an actor was allowed to parody politicians. Noschese had an outstanding capability for imitating not only the voices of his subjects, but also their physical features and attitudes. In an interview just before his death, Noschese listed a total of 1,156 voices he had imitated in his career. In reality he set the bar so high, no one has replaced him.

add Feb 23, 2023==============================

                                                                    "Soul Thief"

Shortly after Noschese's death, RAI released a 51-minute documentary, "Soul Thief" about his life. It hammered the
question "Who was Alighiero Noschese". That is available here.

They came to no conclusion. That wasn't the point. If you are an armchair amateur shrink (and who isn't?) you'll
draw your own conclusions. Rather, they presented an episodic review of his career starting with his first TV appearances, and largely through running commentary from those who had been targets of his impersonations. All of their comments are interesting; some are more relevant than others in trying to untangle this very complicated man. I present my comments here in the order I jotted them down from the documentary.

  • Everyone was aware that he was something special. No one had ever done this. He was so painstakingly precise in his impersonations that Federico Fellini (an early target), who, like everyone else admired Noschese's brilliance, good-naturedly called Noschese a "soul thief" (ladro di anime), unwittingly giving RAI a title for this documentary, still years in the future. Another said it was eerie to see yourself impersonated like that, and you had the feeling that Noschese had taken some of you with him after the show was over. A few celebrities said they were offended at first, but warmed to their Noschese-twin as a compliment. He became so popular that politicians didn't want Noschese to overlook them ("Hey, did you see me on Noschese last night? I was pretty good, huh?)

  • Noschese's voice-overs for other actors were uncanny, including dubbing his own comedic idol and fellow Neapolitan, Totò, when that great comic was too ill to speak. One psychologist in the documentary wondered if Noschese had been a "captive of his own great gift to be someone else." I think you can over-analyze things, yes, but that one sounds at least plausible. Noschese was married once and divorced. I don't know if that is important. He became a Freemason. I don't know about that one either. He was a Roman Catholic.

  • The political climate of the times in Italy was not good for his career. The far-left Red Brigades were responsible for many violent incidents in what is known in Italy as the 'Years of Lead', including the ambush and murder of Aldo Moro on March 16th, 1978. Can politics put a damper on comedy? Yes, no doubt. Try being funny under any authoritarian regime. Yes, I suppose you can have a "How can you be funny at a time like this?" feeling running through society. In this particular case, however, I remain unconvinced. It is the case, however, that Noschese walked away from his early successes and when he tried a come-back it was a flop. Can it be that no one wanted him anymore because of the political situation? I exclude that. I think his problems were his personal demons: he was unsure of himself, fragile and a hypochondiac. He checked into a clinic and was under supervision for clinical depression. Somehow he got a gun and ended his life. Does it matter how he got the gun? The state attorney decided not to pursue it.

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