When I entered the apartment of my 86 year-old second cousin John Alarimo, I had no idea what I would find.  After years of living just blocks apart, John was letting me into his home for the very first time.

I didn’t know “Johnny” growing up.  I only heard about him through aunts, grandparents, my father.  I knew that he’d lived in Rome for twenty years, made movies, consorted with movie stars, and worked on the epic Hollywood classic, Ben-Hur.  In what capacity, I wasn’t sure. 

As a child, the only time I met John was at a funeral, the image of him still emblazoned in my mind: dashing, witty, charming, funny, electric -- and constantly telling stories.  It's only as an adult that I can look back to see what a legendary figure he had become in my mind.

Somewhere in the 70’s, Johnny returned from Rome and moved to LA.  He soon retired.  In the 90’s I moved to Los Angeles too, and ended up, by chance, living in the same neighborhood.  We slowly got to know each other.  A dinner here, a function there.  But somehow John always managed to keep his distance.  Fun and effusive in person, his personal life always lingered  just off-screen beyond my view.

And there were always the stories.  His intriguing, personal relationships with so many icons and legends from the 20th Century: Rock Hudson, Bette Davis, Charlton Heston, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Gore Vidal, and more.  Whenever we met, Johnny would repeat these stories, and always in the same way.  Not exactly rehearsed, but “written and directed” as a friend of my once commented.  I found myself intrigue, though not so much with the stories themselves, but by the kind of mask they seemed to form: John's stories felt like intimacy, yet they seemed to hide more than they revealed.

Over the years I would ask John if he wanted to record his stories or make a film.  He usually declined. 

Finally, in 2009, with an opening in my schedule, I asked John more intently.   Again he deferred and told me he was writing a book.  We were having dinner and I realized that I was no longer in the casual role of having supper with a cousin, but that of a director suddeny pitching a film to its star.  Sensing this was a crucial moment, I told John that he should definitely write a book, but added, "it’s watching you tell the stories that makes them interesting”.  John got a glint in his eye.  The kind a performer gets when he or she suddenly realizes they are the only actor in the world who can inhabit the role.

Dinner ended and a couple of weeks later John called to say that he would make a film, but only under one condition: that he would never have to see the finished film.

In January of 2010, I entered John’s apartment for the very first time.  It was both beautiful and worn.  Elegant furniture.  Tattered curtains.  And lots of boxes.  Sunset Boulevard on a smaller scale.  A world and a life, frozen in time.

As we filmed and John’s trust grew, he began opening the boxes.  Like a real-life Forest Gump or Zelig, his wonderful, magical life emerged.   Hundreds of photographs, letters, and mementoes, all carefully labeled and preserved. There was John and Bette Davis. Heston.  Rock Hudson.  Wyler.  Gore Vidal.  Richard Burton and John Wayne. There Kirk Douglas or Angie Dickensen.  Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Mae West or Jeanne Crain.  And dozens more.

Over the course of filmmaking, John's life came into bloom: a man, beautiful in his youth, meticulously recording himself over a lifetime, everything notated and described, as if waiting to finally be seen. 

And there I was, entering as if on cue, camera in hand.

Featuring hundreds of rare, never-before-seen black and white photographs, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur is John Alarimo's epic journey through Old Hollywood, La Dolce Vita Rome and the 20th Century.  It is an emotional detective story that charts a man’s psyche.  And maybe, perhaps, uncovers his soul.

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