The name of Nino Castelnuovo will always be associated with the backstreet Esso garage in which Guy Foucher romances shopgirl Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) in Jacques Demy’s sublime French New Wave musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

The Italian actor, who has died at the age of 84, had his voice dubbed by José Bartel for Michel Legrand’s Oscar-nominated song, ‘I Will Wait for You’. But Guy’s earnest longing as he smuggles Geneviève past his ailing aunt and into his bedroom before departing for the Algerian War, and the brooding bitterness of the wounded veteran who bumps into his lost love years later, were pure Castelnuovo.

Francesco Castelnuovo was born in the Lombard city of Lecco on 28 October 1936 and actually worked as a mechanic among several other jobs before relocating to Milan to study acting. Having taken a bit part in the Fernandel comedy The Virtuous Bigamist (1956), Castelnuovo got a rare taste of Hollywood with another uncredited walk-on, as Captain Trinidad, opposite Ava Gardner and Dirk Bogarde in the Spanish civil war saga, The Angel Wore Red (1960).

Nino Castelnuovo (left) with Alain Delon in Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

The same year saw Castelnuovo act alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini in The Hunchback of Rome and Alain Delon in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. He also got to sing with Annette Funicello in the two-part Disneyland story ‘Escapade in Florence’ (1962). 

Yet, while The Umbrellas of Cherbourg won the Palme d’Or and made a star of Catherine Deneuve (with whom he would reunite down the cast list of Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures, 1966), Castelnuovo became becalmed after films such as The Reward (1965) and Vittorio De Sica’s The New World (1966) underwhelmed. 

After teaming with Tony Curtis and Monica Vitti in the medieval romp On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who…, Castelnuovo settled into small-screen roles after being acclaimed for his performance as Renzo in the miniseries I promessi sposi (1967). But he occasionally resurfaced in co-productions like Red Roses for the Fuhrer (1968) and The Five Man Army, while also headlining curios like Radley Metzger’s sexploitation spin on Dumas, Camille 2000 (both 1969). 

Away from television, Castelnuovo popped up as the bellhop in the 1973 farce L’Emmerdeur, and as a womanising photographer in the giallo Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). However, he was little seen in cinemas after stooping to the erotic drama That Malicious Age (1975) and Star Wars rip-off, Star Odyssey (1979). 

It was Anthony Minghella who ended his 17-year exile by casting him as D’Agostino, an archaeologist recalled in flashback by Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) in the Oscar-winning adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s bestseller, The English Patient (1996).

Remaining busy on television and in the theatre, Castelnuovo only made a few more films. The last saw him play the shady figure of Kenny Butler in the sports drama The Legacy Run (2016). Now white-haired, he remained handsome. But most would prefer to hark back half a century to see him wheeling his bicycle, as he and Deneuve glide on love along a half-lit alleyway in Normandy. 

Further reading

The best musical of every year – from the dawn of sound to the rise of the jukebox musical

By Grace Barber-Plentie

The best musical of every year – from the dawn of sound to the rise of the jukebox musical

Where to begin with Jacques Demy

By Geoff Andrew

Where to begin with Jacques Demy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg archive review: “a glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world”

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg archive review: “a glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world”