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Bud Spencer, Who Achieved Cult Status In Eastern Europe, Dies At 86

Bud Spencer receiving an award in Cairo in 2004.
Bud Spencer receiving an award in Cairo in 2004.

In the 1970s communist bloc, where the only official heroes were either long-dead leaders or living Communist Party officials, kids and adults alike would line up for hours not only for food, but also to get a coveted cinema ticket to watch a different type of hero.

A swashbuckler who prevailed bare-handed against scores of armed thugs, swam faster than Nile crocodiles, and piloted helicopters and planes while saving the day. He was larger than life and much-loved for his kind heart hidden inside a mountain of muscles.

He was "Flatfoot," or Piedone in Italian, a Naples cop played by Italian Bud Spencer.

Spencer, born Carlo Pedersoli, died in Rome on June 27 at the age of 86.

Spencer appeared in scores of films for more than 65 years and was well-known in Western Europe and America for his spaghetti Westerns.

But it was another part of Europe where he would reach cult status.

In the early and mid-70s, Eastern Europeans were experiencing a period of cautious openness toward Western culture, and Spencer's knock-off Westerns and police thrillers immediately gained him huge popularity throughout the communist bloc.

When his 1973 "poliziottesco" comedy The Knockout Cop, featuring police inspector Piedone Rizzo, hit the screens in Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, or Bulgaria, his popularity shot up. Moviegoers rushed to get a ticket despite the massive lines -- sometimes from ticket peddlers at five times the price -- to watch the good-natured giant disarm hordes of Mafiosi bare-handed and then walk orphans to school.

While not masterpieces, the "Piedone" movies were a form of cinematic escapism for oppressed Eastern Europeans in drab communist societies outwardly lacking in both color and heart -- qualities that Bud Spencer’s Piedone character had in spades.

His popularity was such that in Hungary, a country that routinely dubbed foreign movies and TV shows, the actor who dubbed Spencer's voice on-screen, Istvan Bujtor, went on to star in several Piedone-inspired movies, playing Otvos Csopi, a Spencer-look-alike police inspector.

Romanians adopted "Piedone" as a synonym for "Big Guy," popular enough that a local politician who bore a vague resemblance to Spencer adopted it after becoming a district mayor in Bucharest under the name Cristian Popescu-Piedone.

Before he took up acting, Pedersoli was an accomplished swimmer -- the first Italian to swim the 100-meter freestyle in under a minute -- in 1950. He was a seven-time national swimming champ and even competed at two Olympics.

He shot to fame as an actor in 1967 when he was 38, starring in his first spaghetti Western, God Forgives...I Don't! alongside frequent co-star Terence Hill (born Mario Girotti).

During the golden age of the spaghetti Western -- a subgenre of depictions of the American West so called because they were frequently directed by Italians -- actors felt compelled to adopt American-sounding pseudonyms.

Pedersoli chose Bud Spencer, which was a dual homage to his favorite beer, Budweiser, and his screen idol, Spencer Tracy.

As Bud Spencer he became a relatively well-known action star in the West.

In many Eastern European countries, even after the fall of communism, local television networks continued to air Bud Spencer movies.

On June 28, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the first official to pay his respects.

"Ciao #BudSpencer We loved you so much," Renzi tweeted.

Hollywood superstar Russell Crowe added his condolences. "RIP Bud Spencer... My heart goes out to your family," Crowe wrote on Twitter.