HOLLYWOOD -- Italian citizen Tomas Milian is a Cuban native with an Armenian name starring in 'Frannie's Turn,' a new American CBS-TV sitcom this season.
Although he has starred in more than 100 Italian movies, Milian is unknown in the United States except for small turns in 'JFK' and 'Havana,' the latter bringing him to the attention of the Hollywood establishment.
He has followed the same spaghetti western route to the film capital traveled by Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, arriving 30 years later than both.
'The horse opera is dead in Italy,' said Milian, a chubby, balding man with large, expressive eyes, a soft voice and Latin charm.
'I made a dozen westerns there before moving to contemporary characters and stories. Once I became established in Italian films, I decided to stay.'
Milian decamped Cuba in 1956, three years before Castro's revolution, to study acting at New York's Actors Studio.
He says he immigrated because acting was not considered a respectable career among Cubans. After a couple of years in Florida learning English with relatives, he finally headed for New York and made it to the Actors Studio. At the time he was a handsome, dashing young leading man.
He worked at the studio for a couple of years and appeared off- Broadway where he was spotted by Gian Carlo Menotti and Jean Cocteau who swept him off to Rome to starin 'The Poet and the Muse.'
Milian expected to be in Italy 15 days and spent the next 31 years there, becoming one of that country's bigget box-office stars.
'I became an Italian citizen and married an Italian girl,' Milian recalled with pleasure. 'From 1959 to 1965 I worked in intellectual movies with Visconti and others, playing bourgeois characters.
'I wanted to come back to America after that, but in order to do so I had to make some money, so I began doing westerns. Like Eastwood. I played sympatico villains, which caught on with European audiences. I became very, very popular and made a great deal of money as a box-office attraction.
'But only two of my 100 pictures have ever been released in the United States. When weterns were finito in 1970, I was offered only a cameo role as a thief in another picture. They wanted me because they could borrow money on my name.
'In return I insisted on creating the character of the thief, naming him Monnezza, which is Italian slang for 'trash.' He had long curly hair and a black beard. He wore a little hat and tennis shoes and a blue worker's jump suit.
'He used four-letter words, which I learned in Italian. As a Cuban, there was a certain innocence in speaking those taboo words that amused audiences instead of offending them. It wasn't dirty. From the beginning people took to Monnezza. So I did four more movies playing Monnezza, the thief.
'Monnezza became a sensation. When 'Serpico' came out in America, an Italian producer wanted me to play Monnezza as a detective. They offered me a lot of money. A lot of money.
'I finally did 16 movies as Monnezza, the detective, at about $1 million a film. They are still shown on Italian TV in prime time on Friday nights. But underneath the wigs and the wardrobe of Monnezza was an aging actor who was getting fat and tired.
'Bernardo Bertolucci came along and cast me in 'Luna,' with Jill Clayburgh. I won the Italian Oscar for it. Once I had done that I couldn't go back to Monnezza, I had moved to a different plane.'
Faced with a professional crisis, Milian traveled to India on a spiritual mission and returned to Rome where director Michelangelo Antonioni convinced him to star as a movie director much like Antonioni himself.
'It was the most beautiful experience of my life,' he said. 'Not as an actor, but as a man. Afterward I did two more Monnezza films and quit.
'I decided to start the second half of my life from scratch. I wanted to come to the United States and begin at the bottom, playing heavies. I asked my agents at William Morris to help, but they thought I was crazy.'
The multimillionaire Italian star's first job on his return was a lead in an off-off-off Broadway play.
He said, 'The role was a source of joy and I took it as seriously as I would at the Old Vic. For several years I worked off-Broadway, going back to Italy once a year to make a movie strictly for money.
'Then I played heavies in 'Miami Vice' and 'The Equalizer' among others. But it was my good reviews in the film 'Havana,' which changed my career.
'Now in 'Frannie's Turn' I am playing a Cuban married to an Irish woman (played by Mariam Margolyes). As Joe Escobar, I am an old- fashioned man who is fighting his wife's determination to become a liberated woman. It's very funny.
'Even before we go on the air my Italian producers want me to come back and play Monnezza in retirement in some new movies. I just might do that.'NEWLN: