King of the Gypsies

Dir: Frank Pierson, 1978. Starring: Eric Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Sterling Hayden. Drama.
King of the Gypsies

Due to a lack of high quality competition, King of the Gypsies is still the quintessential American fiction film about modern day gypsies, that is if you're old enough to think of 1978 as “modern day” (while the best non-fiction flick has to be Robert Duvall’s little seen documentary Angelo My Love). Based on a novel by Peter Maas (Serpico), King of the Gypsies reeks of importance and epic pretensions; but besides the cultural curiosity what actually makes the movie worthwhile and totally entertaining is the ham fisted act-off going on up on the screen. From Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River there’s a long tradition of method acting emoters chewing scenery and King of the Gypsies has its share of hungry thespians eager to chew. Heading the cast in his film debut the young pretty-boy Eric Roberts, pouting and brooding (but even under a teary-eyed tortured sulk the guy has chops and acts up a storm), doing what he can to keep up with his co-stars Susan Sarandon and Judd Hirsch who are totally over the top, with legendary ultra-hams Sterling Hayden and Shelly Winters nipping at their heels. Any film where Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli in the Godfather: Part II) is an example of restraint in his one early scene, you know this is going to be some histrionic fun.

A New York and Pennsylvania gypsy clan is led by Zharko (Hayden); he claims to live like a millionaire who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. The nomadic gypsies live without birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or paying taxes; they are proud criminals, scam artists, thieves, card sharks, insurance frauders and phony fortunetellers and by the late ‘70s they’ve settled in NYC where the real action is. Zharko’s son Groffo (Hirsch), the heir to the king, is considered a joke of a man; he’s a gambler and abusive to his wife Rose (Sarandon), who is the real talent in the family when it comes to the con. Zharko is dying and wants to skip his son and pass the leadership to his grandson Dave (Roberts), which has Groffo in a snit. The problem is Dave, like Michael in The Godfather, has ambitions to break away from the family and become a model citizen; he even has a non-gypsy girlfriend, Sharon (Annette O’Toole, in this era a go-to actress for all-American girlfriend roles). Under Zharko’s orders Dave is lured back to the family to protect his little sister Tita—
Brooke Shields, playing Sarandon’s daughter for the second film in a row after Pretty Baby (she’s the opposite of a ham; though already beautiful, she has trouble just getting her lines out).

On his deathbed, Zharko passes the sacred gypsy-king ring to Dave, but Groffo puts a hit out on him, hiring some thugs to knife him. Dave tries to rescue his sis from a worthless future but with Groffo chasing him she is killed in a car crash. And here King of the Gypsies switches tones from family melodrama to the vibe of an ugly ‘70s NY vigilante revenge flick (one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres). And then after a quick epilogue it ends. No wonder audiences in ’78 were baffled and wrote King of the Gypsies off as a disappointment. At least now with time, and no expectations, it can be appreciated for what it is and not what it wasn’t. 

A couple films after King of the Gypsies Roberts would get a chance to live up to the promise, giving one of the great performances of the ‘80s as the creepy sleaze Paul Snider in Star 80 and deservingly got his one Oscar nomination for his work in the excellent action flick Runaway Train. But then it would all slip away, as his career faded to straight-to-video junk and then eventually reality TV freak show appearances. Like his Pope of Greenwich Village co-star Mickey Rourke, Roberts’s personal problems only heightened his lack of taste in the scripts he chose (or was offered); as his looks faded so did his career. Roberts is still waiting for his The Wrestler (of course as soon as you can say “comeback” Rourke has already gone back to strictly paycheck collecting).

Director Frank Pierson is actually a really interesting talent and in some ways had a kinda underrated career. He had always dabbled in directing (mostly TV) but after writing a number of films including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (that’s enough for a lifetime of respect) he moved into the big time with the hyped-up Barbra Streisand vehicle A Star is Born; the film turned out to be awful. He followed it with King of the Gypsies, the best of his theatrical directing efforts; but like John Frankenheimer he reinvented himself as an excellent cable TV director with a number of outstanding credits including Citizen Cohn, Truman and Soldier’s Girl. He since appears to have retired, but he can rest easy knowing he’s had a hand as a writer in some classics and helped to build cable TV’s reputation for quality. And though King of the Gypsies may have been ignored and then forgotten, with a cult of one (me), but if nothing else it belongs in the annals of overwrought, bombastic, ham-epics and for that King of the Gypsies is one of the ages.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 21, 2011 8:36am
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