For many of us, the name Terence Hill conjures up repeated viewings of Superfuzz on cable channels in the early ’80s. If you haven’t seen this cinematic milestone about a superpowered Miami cop partnered with Ernest Borgnine, there is a little less light in your world. What many of our adolescent minds didn’t realize was that we were watching one of the most popular international stars of the 1970s and one half of the most influential action-comedy duo in film history.
Along with Bud Spencer, Hill made some of the best action comedies of 1970s, shattering European box office records with timeless classics like They Call Me Trinity and Watch Out We’re Mad. Their comedies are filled with often crude (but rarely scatological) humor and incredible slapstick brawls with Terence doing his own acrobatic stunts and the bulldozer-built Spencer throwing bad guys around like rag dolls or hitting them with his patented "hammer" fist. They were quite a contrast: Hill was blue-eyed, blonde, lean, handsome, and always had a ridiculous grin on his face and Spencer resembling Bluto from the old Popeye comic strip (which is alluded to in their movies). In fact, Paul L. Smith, who played Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, began his career as a Bud Spencer clone!
Hill and Spencer were both refugees from the Italian peplums and westerns that Italy churned out in the ’50s and ’60s, and their buddy comedies are sometimes unfairly blamed for killing the spaghetti westerns (in truth, the genre was dying before they arrived). Though never acknowledged in the history books, Bud and Terence are a huge influence on Jackie Chan and many Hong Kong action comedies, including the legendary Aces Go Places series. You can’t watch Sammo Hung’s Wheels On Meals and not detect an influence from Watch Out We’re Mad. Americans know them mainly for the "Trinity" Westerns, They Call Me Trinity and Trinity Is Still My Name, but sadly, know little of one of their best films, I’m For The Hippopotamus. This 1979 Italo Zingarelli film is a perfect introduction to their work, with a sense of fun and adventure rarely found in contemporary movies.
Never released in the US, this Africa-lensed caper features Bud as Tom, owner of a fraudulent safari company that provides hunters with blank rifles (because Tom loves animals) and tours through villages where the citizens pretend to be primitive natives to scam the ignorant, rich tourists. His half-brother Slim (Terence) returns to the jungle after years of world travel to help with the family business, only to help his brother and a respected doctor fight the greedy businessman, Mr. Ormond (European boxing champ Joe Bugner). Ormond is trying to illegally sell ivory and animals to buyers in Toronto. Those devilish Canadians!
True to their reliable formula, our boys have various brawls with Ormond and his henchman, a jungle road car chase orchestrated by the famed Remy Julienne (famous for the original Italian Job), and redo their "French Restaurant Sequence" from Trinity Is Still My Name with new gags at the villain’s mansion. You know you’ve got the right movie when Spencer mistakes caviar for blackberry jam.
What’s refreshing about their adventures is how our heroes are unafraid and nearly unaware of the danger around them. The grins never leave their faces no matter what threat occurs. That’s right, an action comedy with little tension or real danger, but, by Jove, it works. Sort of like The Blues Brothers or a live action Looney Tune cartoon. Not to mention a rollicking musical score, complete with Bud singing "Grau Grau Grau."
And, most daring of all, there is an interracial romance between Slim and the doctor’s daughter. This may not seem edgy today, but this film was made a few years after United Artists had scenes of 007 romancing Gloria Hendry removed from Live and Let Die prints distributed in South Africa, and Spencer and Hill were very popular in South Africa.
With his international popularity in the 1970s, there were two failed attempts, to make Terence Hill a star in the US: Jonathan Kaplan’s Mr. Billions (Terence vs. Jackie Gleason) and the Foreign Legion melodrama of March or Die (with Terence butting heads with Gene Hackman). Neither film was a success, because like Jackie Chan, US filmmakers didn’t understand the core of his appeal as the movies were played too straight and lacked the action and energy of his Italian work.