They loved and lost ... but now their story finally has a happy ending
They finish each other's sentences, sometimes in English and sometimes Italian. They trade loving glances as they remember their early days together. It's easy to believe that Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero have never been apart since they first met nearly 50 years ago but this is no ordinary love story.
They were apart for nearly four decades and never imagined they would meet again until fate brought them together again, this time, they hope, for good. "When you rediscover love it's even stronger, even deeper says Franco Nero, now 72. And Vanessa Redgrave, 77, adds: "Rekindling an old flame means you're not impatient to turn somebody into something they're not. You just love them for who they are."
Recently they celebrated their love at a party with friends with poetry readings and an exchange of rings. "They consider themselves husband and wife," says a friend. "Although they don't see the need for any legal contract. They couldn't be happier than they are."
Vanessa says it was Franco's love and support which got her through a string of unbearable losses. Her daughter Natasha died after a skiing accident, her brother Corin died of prostate cancer and her sister Lynn died after battling breast cancer.
Their love first time around began when Vanessa was 29, eldest daughter of Britain's show-business "royal family", a committed Communist, hailed as the greatest actress of the time, and, appropriately enough, playing a stately queen.
He was the 24-year-old son of an Italian peasant farmer, renowned for having a good time both on and off the screen.
Indeed, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero could hardly have been more different. But when they met in Warner Brothers' epic musical, Camelot, there was soon as much — if not more — romantic drama off-camera as there was on-set.
"We're going to have problems with those two," forecast celebrated director Joshua Logan, and he was right. Co-starring as Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, Redgrave and Nero soon found that they couldn't take their eyes off each other.
"He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen," she told a friend. "What a woman!" declared Nero. "What a pity she's married..."
Vanessa Redgrave had married film director Tony Richardson in 1962 and they had two small daughters, Natasha and Joely. But now the couple were frequently apart and it was no secret that Richardson did not approve of his wife's headline-making political activities.
Now he was in London and his wife was far away in Hollywood ... and she was working with Franco Nero every day.
Soon the gossip columns were full of rumours of their torrid affair and only days later Franco Nero admitted that, yes, they were in love, and intended to spend all their lives together.
When Camelot was finished, the couple, and Vanessa's two daughters fled to Italy where they lived for two months in a remote farmhouse while the world's press camped nearby and Tony Richardson issued guarded statements about the future of his marriage.
"We are talking about things," he said. "Whatever happens we will remain good friends."
Meanwhile, Vanessa found "to my great joy" that she was pregnant but was astonished by the press reaction to the birth of a baby, Carlo. When editors denounced the couple for "immorality" Redgrave declared: "I can't see anything immoral about being happy with someone without being married to them."
The problem was that Franco Nero was spending an increasing amount of time away from his new family. As a "spaghetti Western" star he was now as famous in Italy as Clint Eastwood was in America.
The couple had a house in London and a villa outside Rome and when not working, Nero was usually to be found at his Italian home tending his beloved vineyards.
Now the Hollywood gossip columns were linking his name with other beautiful women, including Monica Vitti and Ursula Andress.
At first, Vanessa denied that there was anything wrong, but, in 1977 finally admitted that "we are no longer technically a couple although we are still the closest of friends."
Indeed, when their son suffered a serious car accident, both instantly flew to his side — Vanessa from London and Franco from Hollywood where he was appearing in a movie with Liv Ulmann. After this, Franco Nero became involved with Valerie Perrine — and they drifted apart ... for the next 30 years.
Five years later, the relationship was in the headlines again when it was announced that the couple would co-star in the Hollywood police drama, Wagner, in which Nero played a police chief.
But the couple never met on set — at Vanessa's insistence they shot their scenes on separate days, acting with doubles who were only seen from the back!
Friends believed that was the end of the love story of Vanessa and Franco, but it wasn't. They met at a party. "It was as though we had never been apart," Franco remembers. "We both knew that this time we must not lose each other again. They haven't. "The games are done," says Franco Nero "This time nothing but death will tear us apart."