Gianni Garko, Mr. Sartana himself, was born as Giovanni Garkovich on July 15, 1935 in Zadar, now a Croatian city, then an Italian enclave. Most people living in Zadar, in Italian Zara, were Dalmatian families with an ethnic Italian background. They had moved to Zara in the 1920s, when the status of former Austrian-Hungarian territories were settled and Italy was granted the authority over the city. Zara was bombed on several occasions during WW II, and most part of it was destroyed, including its famous historic centre. The often disputed city was ceded to general Tito's Yugoslavia in 1947. Most Italian families moved out and were replaced by South Slavic settlers. The Garcovich family settled in Trieste, just across the border.
After finishing school, Gianni started following acting lessons at the local Teatro Nuovo. When he was accepted as a student at the prestigious National Academy of Drama "Silvio d'Amico", he moved to Rome, and made his theatrical debut in 1958 in the play Veglio la mia casa, angelo. The director of the play was no other than Luchino Visconti. In this same year, he also made his first appearances on television and in cinema. In 1959 director Gillo Pontecorvo cast him as a German soldier for Kapo, a movie (written by Franco Solinas) about an escape attempt from a Nazi concentration camp, that was nominated (in 1961) for the Oscar in the foreign language category. After several performances in peplums and comedies (Il Compagno di Don Camillo, 1965), he was cast for a spaghetti western, Alberto de Cardone's would-be psychological Mille dollari sul nero. Although he played the villain, and was billed second to Anthony Steffen, it was his performances that attracted most attention. He played alongside Claudio Camasio and Fernando Sancho in the twin movies 10.000 dollari per un massacro and Per 100,000 dollari ti ammazzo. Both films were 'serious' die-hard spaghettis, but Garko used his experience as a trained stage actor to add an ambiguous, ironical touch to them with his laconic acting style and smile. Just watch the famous opening scene, set at a seashore, of 10.000 dollari per un massacro, with Garko as a bounty hunter talking about life and death with his victim. I Vigliacchi non pregano was an ambitious, psychological spaghetti western in which he plays an avenger who gets frustrated when he cannot trace the men who killed his family, and finally becomes a ruthless killer himself. The film has a cult following and some think it's his best role, but Garko himself preferred a more laconic approach to the genre.
He refused several offers for western parts until he met producer Aldo Addobbati for Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte. All Addobbati had was a rough sketch for a script and a rough idea about the protagonist, a Zorro type of character. Garko signed in, inserting a clause in the contract that the final script must be approved by him. Addobbati has always sustained that he got the initial idea for both movie and character after seeing Cardoni's Mille dollari sul nero, in which Garko's villainous character was called El Sartana (he used to show a German poster with the character's name on it as evidence), but one of the movie's several scriptwriters has claimed that he and his colleagues made up the name, referring to a word from a regional dialect, meaning 'frying pan'. Along with director Gianfranco Parolini, Garko transformed the obsolete Zorro type into the most sophisticated character in the history of the spaghetti western, a mystical black clad hero with almost superhuman shooting skills and a unequalled ability to pop up at the right place.
Garko would return as Sartana in three movies, all directed by Giuliano Carnimeo: Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino (1969), Buon funerale, amigos!... paga Sartana (1970) and Una nuvola di polvere... un grido di morte... arriva Sartana (1971). Another movie Gli fumavano le Colt... lo chiamavano Camposanto was not a Sartana movie, but surely made in the wake of the series, while Uomo avvisato mezzo ammazzato... Parola di Spirito Santo seemed to parody it.
The Sartana movies had made Garko a star. Occasionally he was cast in an international large scale production, such as Waterloo (1971, Sergei Bundarchuck), but to most people (and producers) he remained a spaghetti western actor: in Bad Man's River he was cast alongside Lee van Cleef and Gina Lollobrigida, in Campa carogna... la taglia cresce he played a Muslim called Korano, probably the only Islamic protagonist in the history of the genre. Like most genre actors he tried to change to Giallo & Crime (Il Boss, 1973, Fernando di Leo) when the spaghetti western started to decline. He gradually sank towards cheap Italian horror and science fiction, or even cheaper German erotica (Drei Schwedinnen in Oberbayern, 1977).
In he 70's and 80's he turned more and more to television; he got some good reviews for mini-series like Storie della camorra (1978) and especially I Promessi Sposi (1989), an ambitious adaptation of a classical Italian novel, in which Garko was â€˜re-discovered' as a talented character-actor. He finally became an Italian household name thanks to his part as doctor Pierfrancesco Moretti in the long-running soap series Vivere. Artistically this was not a career highlight, but he also made a triumphant return to the stage with an acclaimed appearance in Anton Chechov's famous play The Three Sisters.
Gianni Garko is also member for his country of the NGO the Transnational Radical party, an association of citizens, parliamentarians and members of government of various political backgrounds, who try to promote democracy and freedom throughout the world.
View Garko's complete western filmography here.