TONY Franciosa, the darkly handsome and notoriously quick-tempered star of Hollywood movies and TV series in the 1950s and 1960s, has died of a stroke in Los Angeles, just one week after ex-wife Shelley Winters. He was 77.

After an Oscar nomination for A Hatful of Rain (1957), Franciosa was tipped for superstardom. But while contemporaries such as Paul Newman went on to long and successful careers, Franciosa's prospects were blighted by rows, and even physical fights, with directors, producers and press.

He spent time behind bars and never fulfilled his early promise. But he retained the romantic image of a maverick, who battled his way out of the slums of Little Italy to become a Hollywood star.

The curiosity of a younger generation was aroused when he worked with cult horror director Dario Argento and when Tom Waits sang "Tony Franciosa used to date my ma" on Goin'Out West, a song used on the soundtrack of Fight Club (1999).

The son of a construction worker and a seamstress, he was born Anthony Papaleo in New York in 1928. His parents split up when he was a baby, he was raised by his mother and eventually adopted her surname. He worked as a labourer and welder, dishwasher and cook and, according to his own account, got into acting by accident.

"I couldn't do the mambo. So when I read that they were giving free dancing lessons at the YWCA, I went there with a friend who was studying dramatics. They were casting a play and offered me a part, " he said.

He went on to study at the Actors' Studio and became part of a wave of intense young Italian-Americans who pioneered a new, more introspective style of acting on Broadway and in Hollywood.

He made his Broadway debut in 1953 and two years later costarred with Shelley Winters in A Hatful of Rain, which controversially tackled drug addiction. Ben Gazzara played the addict, Winters was his wife and Franciosa his brother.

Franciosa was already married, but he and Winters were soon involved in a passionate affair. She wrote in her memoirs that if sex were an Olympic sport Franciosa would have been team captain.

For a brief period Franciosa seemed ubiquitous. The film of A Hatful of Rain was just one of four big movies in which he appeared in 1957, with major roles in the comedy This Could be the Night, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd and George Cukor's Wild is the Wind.

There were rumours of an affairwith Wild is the Wind costar Anna Magnani, prompting Winters to fly to the set. Winters and Franciosa married in May 1957 and she later described the three-year-union as "fun and fights and grand passion and low comedy".

In 1958 he played local bigwig Orson Welles's son in the southern drama, The Long, Hot Summer, in a cast that also included Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Lee Remick, and in 1959 he was an aspiring actor in Career, alongside Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. The performance won him a Golden Globe.

By the end of the decade he had acquired a reputation for being difficult and unreliable and had served short terms of imprisonment, for kicking a photographer and marijuana possession.

He co-starred opposite Jane Fonda in Period of Adjustment (1962) and appeared with Frank Sinatra in Assault on a Queen (1966). But he was no longer the rising star and big film roles were not as regular as they had been.

Moving to television, he played an investigative reporter in The Name of the Game (1968-70), but was eventually sacked for causing too much "wear and tear" on set, and he was an ex-spy in Matt Helm (1975-76), reviving a character played by Dean Martin on the big screen. On one occasion he reportedly punched his director.

Paul Newman stood by him and helped get him a major supporting role in the thriller The Drowning Pool (1975).

Franciosa also appeared in the Arthur Hailey mini-series Wheels (1978), Death Wish II (1982), Dario Argento's Tenebre (1982), a TV remake of Stagecoach (1986), with Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, and the Al Pacino thriller City Hall (1996).

He married for a fourth time in 1970 and the union with former model Rita Thiel lasted until his death and eventually seemed to have a mellowing effect. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Tony Franciosa, actor; born October 25, 1928, died January 19, 2006.