When the original Django picked up the phone, he was just winding down from a few games of tennis and was about to wrap presents.
It's the Sunday before Christmas, and Franco Nero, the Italian acting legend, has a lot of reasons to be thankful. At 71, he finds there is a renewed interest in his career because of the release of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," in which he makes a cameo, and the art-house release of a restored version of Luis Bunuel's 1970 masterpiece, "Tristana."
"For me, Bunuel was the best director in the world," Nero said from his home in Rome. "He was the only director who would say to the script girl, who would time the minutes of the film, 'How long is the movie?' She'd say, 'An hour 32, 33,' and he'd say in Spanish, 'That's it! The film is finished! Longer movies and people get bored.'
"He never cut one minute from his movies. Directors now, they shoot five hours, six hours and cut it to two hours. ... You know how many days (it took) for him to (edit) 'Tristana'? Three days!"
Nero roars with laughter, something he did with frequency during the 32-minute chat. The actor -- perhaps best known to American audiences as the villain in "Die Hard 2" -- loves to tell a good story.
When he was cast in "Tristana," he was at the height of his fame, having scored big in "Django" (1966) and other spaghetti Westerns, and "Camelot" (1967) -- he was Sir Lancelot to Richard Harris' King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave's Guinevere. He was a target of paparazzi as well -- he and Redgrave began what would be a lifelong, on-and-off affair while filming "Camelot" and had a child together shortly before "Tristana" began filming. (After years of separation, they have been together the past two decades, marrying on New Year's Eve 2006.)
"Tristana" is a strange, compelling movie, filmed in the small town of Toledo, Spain, by a surrealist master who, at 69, was nearing the end of a brilliant career. Catherine Deneuve is Tristana, who is seduced by her elderly guardian (Fernando Rey) and seeks escape with her lover, an artist (Nero), before illness forces her return.
In a sense, Nero is Bunuel as a younger man -- a talented artist in small-town Spain (the film is set in 1929), and Rey -- a Bunuel regular -- stands in for the elder Bunuel. The theme: love found, love lost, love corrupted.
"Bunuel was the only director in the world that never used music," Nero said. "For him, the music was the barking of dogs, the ringing of bells from churches, the piano, if somebody was playing it."
Nero laughed and said Bunuel, an ardent hater of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, refused to call Nero by his first name.
"The funniest thing about Bunuel is he was also a child," Nero said. "It's the same thing I said about Quentin (Tarantino). We had a great poet many years ago in Italy, his name was Giovanni Pascoli, he said, 'In every man there is the soul of a child.' And: 'A man is a real man until his soul abandons him.'
"So Bunuel was an eternal child."