'King of the Gypsies' Should Become a Cult Classic

by Christopher Forsley

3 August 2015

Eric Robert's big screen debut provides a beautifully shot and scored dramatic take on gypsy life in America.
cover art

King of the Gypsies

Director: Frank Pierson
Cast: Eric Roberts, Sterling Hayden, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Michael V. Gazzo, Annie Potts, Shelley Winters

US DVD: 14 Jul 2015

The opening scene of King of the Gypsies (1978) shows a lone gypsy dancing an elaborate dance by a stream in the picturesque country landscape of New York state sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, and with this opening scene two of the film’s greatest virtues become evident: its visuals and its soundtrack.

Famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who is responsible for the photography in foreign arthouse classics like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) as well as Hollywood pop-culture sensations like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), gives King of the Gypsies a soothing natural look that is perfect for both its mythical subject and dramatic story. Its soundtrack, meanwhile, is scored by the innovative bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, who seems to have shared duties with the legendary violinist Stéphane Grappelli in performing the film’s unforgettable tracks that are reminiscent of the type of French gypsy jazz most associate with Django Reinhardt. 

This opening scene then transitions to a nearby camp where two rival gypsy clans are squabbling about a prearranged marriage. King Zharko Stephanowicz (Sterling Hayden), known as the ‘King of the Gypsies’, has came to this camp to collect the adolescent Rose (later played by Susan Sarandon) to wed his son Groffo (later played by Judd Hirsch). Although the leader of the resident gypsy clan, Spiro (Michael V. Gazzo), had previously agreed to sell his daughter Rose, which is a customary practice in this culture, he now refuses to hand her over to King Zharko because she hates the young Groffo. All hell breaks loose and the sequence ends with King Zharko and his clan stealing Rose and driving off while shooting a six-shooter out the window of their car.

The film then begins chronicling the early life of Frank (Eric Roberts), who is Rose and Groffo’s first born son. While Rose has become a successful gypsy woman who enlists her young son in a variety of scams, Groffo has turned out to be, just as she suspected as a child, a loser. He has no source of income and seems to spend all his time drinking booze and abusing his family. But Frank neither endures the abuse nor the haphazard gypsy life for long. He runs away and tries to join mainstream society as soon as King Zharko, who acts as his real father figure, starts talking to him about getting a wife.

Once free from the gypsy world, Frank falls in love and moves in with Sharon (Annette O’Toole). Sharon knows nothing of Frank’s family history until his mother, Rose, arrives with some news. The news is that Groffo has arranged for Frank’s younger sister, Tita (Brooke Shields as a child actor), to marry against her wishes. She then tells Frank that he can save his little sister from an unhappy marriage and life by visiting the dying King Zharko who wants to pass on the title, ‘King of the Gypsies’, to his favorite nephew, Frank, rather than his drunken son, Groffo. As ‘King’ Frank will have great power… but it’s a power he doesn’t want. 

Annie Potts and Shelley Winters round out the incredibly talented cast, and together this ensemble of characters explore how the seeds of tradition, family, and culture, once planted inside a individual’s subconscious, often develop roots so deep that they are impossible to escape from. Even if you sever whatever these seeds produce on the surface, their roots never stop growing and it’s only a matter of time before they again break through the soil of reality and make demands. King of the Gypsies is about a young man who must face these demands, even though it’s the last thing he wants to do. 

Frank Pierson, who both wrote and directed the film, based much of the background material surrounding its captivating story on Peter Maas’s 1975 work of creative nonfiction by the same name. And whether it’s due to the fact that Maas reportedly relied almost entirely on police records to write his book or simply Hollywood sensationalism at work, the stereotype that gypsies are nothing more than thieving, scamming, fighting misfits unfortunately acts as the engine behind the film. But stereotypes aside, Pierson offers with King of the Gypsies an intimate, relatively realistic look at gypsy culture in the United States that many Americans have long been ignorant of.

For this reason alone it’s a film worth watching. It should be remembered as a powerfully written, memorably scored, beautifully shot film that highlights Eric Roberts in a debut that I can only describe as a tour de force performance of overacting. The film, however, seems to be widely ignored by younger generations of film buffs who weren’t of age to see it upon its theatrical release or completely forgotten by those cinephiles who did see it on the big screen. Perhaps this oversight is because it was released at the end of the ‘70s, undoubtedly America’s greatest decade in filmmaking, and has been overshadowed by the many masterful juggernauts from that era. Or maybe it’s because the film didn’t get a widescreen release on home video until Legend Films put out a DVD in 2008.

I haven’t any idea why the movie-loving public has failed to acknowledge King of the Gypsies on any significant scale. I’m only certain of this one thing: the film, without question, deserves to be resurrected for the masses, reconsidered by those who forgot it, and discovered by those unfortunate enough to have not seen it. Lucky for us, Olive Films is doing its part in putting the spotlight back on King of the Gypsies with this new Blu-ray edition. 

While the high definition resolution makes for a great introductory viewing experience, I would have liked to have seen some special features included with the release. A commentary track with Eric Roberts would have been fascinating — not only because it was his big-screen debut, but also because in the decades that followed his career profile shifted from that of a rising star to one of the more respected character actors, and I’d love to hear what he has to say about this explosive launch into Hollywood he had playing Frank.

I would have also liked to have seen some sort of extended cut, or even the inclusion of a few deleted scenes, because one of the major downsides of the film is its fragmented, almost television-movie-esque feel. The story’s progression of time is often rushed, and Dave’s voice-over narration doesn’t always reflect what is on screen. Although I don’t have a shred of evidence, I suspect that studio-pressure resulted in a case of over editing. 

Who am I kidding with these complaints? I should just be grateful this film, which came close to drifting into the forgotten abyss of film history, has received a Blu-ray release. It definitely has its flaws, but it also tells a fascinating story with an excellent cast accompanied by some truly beautiful visuals and music. Is King of the Gypsies a cult classic in the making? I think so. 

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