Ferzetti was born as Pasquale Ferzetti in Rome, Italy on 17 March 1925. He studied at the Accademia d'Arte Drammatica in Rome, but was expelled.
Ferzetti made his screen debut in Via delle Cinque Lune (1942) under the directorship of Luigi Chiarini, featuring actors such as Luisella Beghi, Olga Solbelli, Andrea Checchi, and Gildo Bocci. Uncredited for his next role in Bengasi, he was credited for Flavio Calzavara's La contessa Castiglione (also from 1942). He then took a break from film acting, instead making a succession of theatrical appearances until a small role in Lost Happiness (Felicità perduta, 1946) and Riccardo Freda's Les Misérables (uncredited, 1948). After a small role as a pilot in Flying Squadron (Rondini in volo, 1949) and a role in Sicilian Uprising (Vespro siciliano, also from 1949), a historic film set in 1282 during the War of the Sicilian Vespers, he appeared alongside Elli Parvo, Piero Lulli, Charles Vanel, and Marcello Mastroianni in Luigi Capuano's Vertigine d'amore and Fabiola (both from 1949) as Claudio. The antiquity drama, set in Rome, was warmly received.
Ferzetti had a supporting role in Flavio Calzavara's Sigillo rosso alongside Gino Cervi and Carla Del Poggio, but his first leading role came in Lo Zappatore (both from 1950), a film which focused on the life of peasants and farm workers during the interwar and great depression period. Roles now came in abundance for Ferzetti, from the crime comedy Welcome, Reverend! (Benvenuto, reverendo!, 1950) alongside Aldo Fabrizi, Massimo Girotti, and Lianella Carell, to Luis Trenker's film Barrier to the North (1950), to Guido Brignone's The Naked and the Wicked (Core 'ngratoComposer Puccini under Carmine Gallone, Puccini (also 1953), and reprised the role in House of Ricordi (Casa Ricordi, 1954), also featuring Roland Alex Andre as Gioacchino Rossini. Ferzetti starred in Mario Soldati's The Wayward Wife (La Provinciale, 1953), a Cannes Film Festival nominee for best film, which saw him play the role of a professor who falls in love with a glamorous star (Gina Lollobrigida). This comedy drama involves the tale of a Romanian Countess who forces "Gemma" to become a prostitute. For his performance, Ferzetti received an award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and further cemented his status as a leading actor in Italy by appearing alongside Lollobrigida. Ferzetti appeared in Marcello Pagliero's comedy drama based on the play by Luigi Pirandello, Vestire gli ignudi (1954), playing the character of Ludovico Nota alongside Pierre Brasseur, Manlio Busoni, and Paolo Ferrara, and in Camilla (also 1954), under the directorship of Luciano Emmer., 1951) and Inganno (1952), to Curzio Malaparte's drama, The Forbidden Christ (Il Cristo proibito, 1951), to Antonio Pietrangeli's Empty Eyes (Il sole negli occhi, 1953). He starred in the successful biopic of
Ferzetti starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Girlfriends (Le Amiche, 1955), as a downbeat, struggling Artist named Lorenzo, with Eleonora Rossi Drago, Franco Fabrizi, and Valentina Cortese in the other leading roles. The film, shot on location in Turin, was adapted from Cesare Pavese's novella Tra donne sole (1949). Around the same time, he starred in Un po' di cielo (also from 1955), directed by Giorgio Moser, and Donatella (1956) opposite Elsa Martinelli, under Director Mario Monicelli. The film was screened at the 6th Berlin International Film Festival. Ferzetti appeared in the crime film, Parola di ladro (1957), for Directors Nanni Loy and Gianni Puccini, opposite Abbe Lane, Nadia Gray, and Andrea Checchi. He later appeared in Antonio Pietrangeli's Souvenir d'Italie, a romantic comedy which saw him feature alongside June Laverick, Isabelle Corey, and Ingeborg Schöner. Ferzetti appeared in Ballerina e Buon Dio (1958), directed by Antonio Leonviola, followed by Racconti d'estate, under the directorship of Gianni Franciolini, based on a story by Alberto Moravia. Ferzetti was cast in this romantic comedy, set in the Tigullio Gulf, alongside Alberto Sordi, Michèle Morgan, Marcello Mastroianni, Sylva Koscina, Dorian Gray, Franca Marzi, Franco Fabrizi, and Jorge Mistral. In 1959, Ferzetti starred alongside Andrée Debar and Isa Miranda as Bernard Turquet de Mayenne in the French historical comedy, Le secret du Chevalier d'Éon. Directed by Jacqueline Audry, the film is set in Burgundy in 1728. He later appeared in Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia's Hannibal, alongside Victor Mature, Rita Gam, Milly Vitale, and Rik Battaglia. The film is set during the Roman Republic; Ferzetti played Fabius Maximus.
Ferzetti starred in Gianni Puccini's Il carro armato dell'8 settembre (1960), followed by Florestano Vancini's La lunga notte del '43 (both 1960). The latter film was set during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 during the Second World War, and saw Ferzetti feature alongside Belinda Lee and Enrico Maria Salerno. It was a considerable success at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for a Goldon Lion Award. He made his international breakthrough as an oversexed, restless playboy, Sandro, in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (also 1960). Starring alongside Lea Massari and Monica Vitti romantically, his role was well received. Liz-Anne Bawden in The Oxford Companion to Film said, "The acting is excellent. Gabriele Ferzetti repeats and develops his role from Le Amiche of the inadequate male/artist".
Ferzetti entered one of the busiest periods of his career, featuring in seven films released during 1962. Among these were Il giorno più corto, directed by Sergio Corbucci, in Giuseppe Bennati's Congo vivo alongside Jean Seberg, in Jean Negulesco's American picture, Jessica, opposite Maurice Chevalier, Angie Dickinson, and Noël-Noël, and in Le Crime ne paie pas (US: Crime Does Not Pay) under Director Gérard Oury. Among a large ensemble cast, Ferzetti had a role in Jean Delannoy's Imperial Venus (1963), and played the character of Leonardi in Charles Frend and Bruno Vailati's war drama, Torpedo Bay (also 1963), alongside Lilli Palmer, James Mason, and Alberto Lupo.
In Luis Lucia's musical comedy, Crucero de verano (1964), he appeared alongside Carmen Sevilla, Marisa Merlini, and José Alfayate and in Lo scippo (1965), alongside Paolo Ferrari, and played the role of Vic Dermatt in Jacques Deray's French crime drama, Par un beau matin d'été (Crime on a Summer Morning, also 1965), alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sophie Daumier, and Geraldine Chaplin. He also had a role in Marcel Carné's Trois chambres à Manhattan (Three Rooms in Manhattan, 1965), a film which incidentally featured a young Robert De Niro in an uncredited role.
Ferzetti began to work on American projects. He starred as Lot in John Huston's biblical epic, The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966), based on the book of Book of Genesis, opposite Michael Parks (Adam), Ulla Bergryd (Eve), Richard Harris (Cain), Franco Nero (Abel), and Huston himself as Noah, the narrator, the serpent, and God. He also made his television debut with his appearance in two episodes of the American spy series, I Spy. Ferzetti starred in A ciascuno il suo (We Still Kill the Old Way, 1967) under Director Elio Petri, and the TV series Dossier Mata Hari . Ferzetti featured in a total of eight films released in 1968, including Marcello Fondato's I protagonisti, Salvatore Samperi's Grazie zia, José María Forqué's Un Diablo bajo la almohada, Roberto Faenza's Escalation, Alberto De Martino's Roma come Chicago, and Sergio Leone's western epic, Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he played Morton, the railroad baron, opposite acclaimed actors Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson.
Directed by Peter Hunt, Ferzetti plays the father of Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), who promises James Bond (George Lazenby) a handsome dowry for marrying her; they fall in love and marry anyway. Hunt had spotted Ferzetti in an Italian film, which he and Harry Saltzman were supposed to be reviewing another actor in, and both were immediately drawn to Ferzetti and persuaded the producers to test Ferzetti. However, despite speaking good English, his lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser, due to Ferzetti's strong Italian accent. In the end of the film, his character Draco's resources are vital in aiding Bond to destroy Ernst Stavro Blofeld's base at Piz Gloria. His final release of 1969 was L'amica, directed by Alberto Lattuada.
In 1970, Ferzetti starred in the political thriller, The Confession, opposite Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, under Director Costa-Gavras. The film, based on the book by Lise London, explores the mental tortures facing the vice-minister of the Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia when he is imprisoned. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Ferzetti starred as an inspector in the crime picture, Cannabis, directed by Pierre Koralnik. The film involves the American mafia and a group of French drug lords. He also had an uncredited role in Terence Young's American picture, Cold Sweat. In 1971, Ferzetti featured in Salvatore Samperi's Million Dollar Eel, a comedy film about an heiress who fakes her own kidnapping and hides in the river Po's delta, in order to obtain money from her parents. In 1972, Ferzetti starred opposite Robert Blake, Catherine Spaak, and Ernest Borgnine in Franco Prosperi's boxing drama, Un uomo dalla pelle dura. A series of appearances in crime films followed, including Alta tension, Trois milliards sans ascenseur (1972), and Bisturi la mafia bianca (1973), directed by Luigi Zampa.
In 1973, Ferzetti appeared in the TV movie, Divorce His, Divorce Hers, under Waris Hussein, and Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a British-Italian produced picture directed by Ennio De Concini. Ferzetti played the role of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel opposite Alec Guinness (Adolf Hitler), Simon Ward, Adolfo Celi, and Diane Cilento. The following year of 1974, he again appeared in a World War II picture, this time the controversial arthouse classic about the Holocaust, The Night Porter, working under Director Liliana Cavani. He starred alongside Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling and played Hans, a Psychiatrist, one of his most notable roles. The film depicts the political continuity between wartime Nazism and post-war Europe, and the psychological continuity of characters locked into compulsive repetition of the past. Given the film's dark and disturbing themes, and a somewhat ambiguous moral clarification at the end, The Night Porter has tended to divide audiences and was accused of mere sensationalism. Film critic Roger Ebert said, "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering."
Ferzetti continued to appear in crime films, including ...a tutte le auto della polizia (1975), directed by Mario Caiano, the German detective thriller Der Richter und sein Henker (1975), directed by Maximilian Schell, Eriprando Visconti's La Orca (1976), and Fernando Di Leo's Gli amici di Nick Hezard, a film about a Swiss heist. He also appeared in French Director Roger Pigaut's picture, Le guêpier, opposite Claude Brasseur and Marthe Keller, and had a small role in Vincente Minnelli's fantasy, A Matter of Time in 1976, which featured a prominent cast, which included Ingrid Bergman and Liza Minnelli. In 1977, he starred in Eriprando Visconti's Oedipus Orca, and Lucio Fulci's The Psychic, about a clairvoyant woman (Jennifer O'Neill), who after having a vision, removes a section of the wall in the home of her husband (Ferzetti) and finds a skeleton behind it. In 1978, Ferzetti appeared in French Director Claude d'Anna's picture, CIA contro KGB, alongside Bruno Cremer, Donald Pleasence, Laure Dechasnel , Hélène Lehman, Dennis Hopper, and Joseph Cotten. He also appeared in another French picture, the romantic drama Mon premier amour, directed by Elie Chouraqui. In 1979, Ferzetti starred in Porci con la P 38, directed by Gianfranco Pagani, Gli anni struggenti, directed by Vittorio Sindoni, Incontro con gli umanoidi, directed by Anthony Richmond and Tonino Ricci, and also had an uncredited role in Terence Young's Bloodline. He also appeared in the TV series I vecchi e i giovani.
In the mid-1980s, as he came closer to retirement age, Ferzetti's career in film began to decline, mainly appearing in low-budget TV movies and mini series, including an uncredited role in The Scarlet and the Black (1983) under Jerry London, and the mini-series Quo Vadis? (1985), La voglia di vincere (1987), and Around the World in 80 Days (1989). His only other films of the period were Julia and Julia (1987), directed by Peter Del Monte, in which he starred alongside Kathleen Turner, Gabriel Byrne, and Sting, and Computron 22, directed by Giuliano Carnimeo (1988).
Ferzetti played a Turkish brigadier in another of Young's pictures, the historical war film, Inchon (1981), with Laurence Olivier as General Douglas MacArthur. He appeared in Vatican Conspiracy (Morte in Vaticano, 1982) directed by Marcello Aliprandi, and starred alongside Franco Nero in the crime comedy, Grog (also 1982), directed by Francesco Laudadio, about two convicts who escape from prison and takes the family of a Doctor as hostages.
He appeared in Julia and Julia, opposite Laurence Olivier in Inchon (1982), and the cult film, First Action Hero. Later in his career, he played the role of Nono in the TV series Une famille formidable, while also appearing in Luca Guadagnino's 2009 film I Am Love.
In the 1990s, Ferzetti only appeared in minor or brief roles in TV movies, such as Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (1990), Black as the Heart (1991), Die Ringe des Saturn (1992), Natale con papà (1994) and mini-series such as Private Crimes (1995), in which he played Dr. Braschi. He did however appear in the film First Action Hero (1994), but his only major role of the 1990s was as the Duke of Venice in Othello (1995), directed by Oliver Parker. He also appeared in Renzo Martinelli's Porzûs and Alfredo Angeli's television series Con rabbia e con amore (both from 1997).
In the 2000s, Ferzetti appeared in Lost Love (Perduto amor, 2003), directed by Franco Battiato, in Concorso di colpaFrench series Une famille formidable, in which he appeared in 11 episodes, between 1996 and 2007. He portrayed Enrico in Edoardo Leo's comedy picture, 18 Years Later (Diciotto anni dopo, 2010), which featured Marco Bonini in the lead role.(2005), directed by Claudio Fragasso and in Io sono l'amore (2009), directed by Luca Guadagnino. His best known role, after 1996, is as Nono in the
Ferzetti died on 2 December 2015, at the age of 90.