Malibu’s Villa Francesca Estate and its prolific owner

Richard Harrison at his family's home Villa Francesca Estate. by Jimy Tallal/TMT

Richard Harrison somewhat of a cult figure among B-movie, sword and sandal, spaghetti western, and “Euro-spy” fans

The location of the bluff top “Villa Francesca” estate and its immediate neighborhood has to be one of the best-kept secrets in Malibu, and owners Richard and Francesca Harrison would like to keep it that way – so mum’s the word. When the couple bought the property in 1987, there was quite a bit of lore attached to it – including stories that the Beach Boys, Charles Manson, James Mason, and the grandson of Edgar Allen Poe had all hung out there at various times.

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Richard and Francesca Harrison at their home “Villa Francesca.” Photo by Jimy Tallal/TMT

But an even more interesting story is the history of Richard Harrison himself. He came to Malibu more or less full-time in 1987 after spending nearly 30 years abroad as a lead actor in 135 films. He is little known in English-speaking countries, which is fine with him because he enjoys his privacy. But Harrison has become somewhat of a cult figure among B-movie, sword and sandal, spaghetti western, and “Euro-spy” fans. 

It all started back in the 50s, when Harrison arrived in Hollywood fresh from Utah, hoping to find work in the film industry. Because of his physique and striking good looks, he was quickly placed under contract by 20th Century Fox and given acting lessons; and landed small parts in the popular gladiator and Hercules genre of the time – also called ‘sword and sandal’ films. 

During that time, he was first introduced to Malibu – his friends, character actor Jack Warden and Director Charles Walters – had houses in The Colony and played penny-ante poker on the weekends. 

Hoping to become more of a leading man than a bit player, Harrison was lured overseas to Italy with a three-film contract. Italy began making American-style cowboy films – “spaghetti westerns” – and Harrison got in on that craze. Although he didn’t speak Italian, he delivered his lines in English, which were later dubbed into other languages.

Harrison’s first Italian film and starring role was “The Invincible Gladiator” (1962), but his best-known films from that era include “Gunfight at Red Sands” (1963) and “Secret Agent Fireball” (1965).

Richard Harrison early on in his career. Contributed photo

When Harrison turned down the lead in “A Fistful of Dollars,” the Italian filmmakers read him the names of three Hollywood actors sent to them and asked him to recommend one. The list included Clint Eastwood and Malibu resident James Brolin. Harrison knew all three and recommended Eastwood because he could ride a horse. The role catapulted Eastwood to stardom in the U.S.

Harrison learned horseback riding, sword fighting, and chariot racing; and often performed his own stunts because he was left-handed. “Chariots have no springs, and it was boom, boom, boom,” he recalled. “And if there were sand holes in the ground, the horses might step in them, and you’d fall.”

The downside of making those action films was that safety regulations were apparently non-existent on overseas sets. “I saw many people killed and injured on these films,” Harrison said. “Even fake bullets can be powerful and almost accidentally blew a guy’s face off.” On a film shoot in Brazil, he witnessed an actor whose parachute didn’t open after jumping out of the plane—it had been improperly folded. He saw people on set badly burned by explosions and fire in the Philippines, Turkey, and Taiwan.

The upside was living life in Europe—with the world’s great art and great food. Harrison loved “visiting new countries and new continents.” In Egypt, on his own time, he climbed to the top of one of the Great Pyramids, which was illegal. “Many people fell and died in their attempts because the bricks were crumbling, and it was dangerous. Looking down from the top, there’s no slope.”

In Spain, Harrison got to know all the bullfighters and, because most came from poor families, said, “They were more worried about ripping their [expensive] costumes than dying.” 

During the 70s, the Italians began making ultra-violent cop movies, and he starred in several, including “Mad Dog Killer” and “Beast with a Gun” (1977). Quentin Tarantino was such a “Beast” fan that he slipped an excerpt from it onto a TV being watched by Bridget Fonda in his film “Jackie Brown” (1997).

When Italian cinema began to wane in the 80s, Harrison set his sights on lead roles in the so-called ninja “Z” movies being made in Hong Kong and the Philippines.  

Unfortunately, he learned too late that in Hong Kong, they would dishonestly edit footage together from different movies to make a new film. So, whereas Harrison may have shot scenes for one film, those same scenes would be spliced into ten other films of super poor quality.

After decades of constant work, he returned to the U.S. and made a few more films before retiring; speaking of his career, Harrison said, “I enjoyed it. I never got a big ego because I always thought how lucky I was, and I was always treated well.”