Arguably the most popular Italian screen comedian since the immortal Toto, Roberto Benigni mastered the exacting art of improvisational humor early. Inspired by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Peter Sellers, Benigni first gained fame in his native country with his own must-see TV series, sustaining his vast following with several hilarious movie appearances. One of his best-known monologues, "Cioni Mario," was expanded into the feature film I Love You Berlinger/Berlinguer Ti Voglio Bene (1977), after which Benigni went on to star in a number of popular films in Italy.
His 1991 Italian box office success, Johnny Stecchino, brought him considerable international attention. American filmgoers, however, may have become aware of his brand of comedy earlier with 1988's The Little Devil, which Benigni wrote, directed, and co-starred in with Walter Matthau. He had also been visible -- to art house audiences, at least -- as a convict in Down by Law (1986) and a Roman taxi driver confessing a bit too much information to a priest in Night on Earth (1988), both directed by Jim Jarmusch, before appearing in Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close in 1993.