ROME — Maurizio Costanzo, for decades one of Italy’s leading prime-time talk show hosts and most prominent television journalists, who had been living under police protection ever since he took on the Sicilian Mafia in 1993, died on Friday at a clinic in Rome. He was 84.
He had recently undergone colon surgery and was recovering in a private clinic, Elisabetta Soldati, a publicist for his family said. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Before his funeral Monday, he lay in state for two days in Rome’s Campidoglio, city hall, an honor reserved for high-ranking officials and Rome-based celebrities, where hundreds of people from the show business and politics paid their respects.
Over more than 50 years in the television business, Mr. Costanzo’s friendly and, at the same time, piercing journalistic style transformed Italy’s once stiff talk shows into lively, informal affairs that mixed politically sensitive topics, social commentary, gossip and personal revelations. Television critics praised him as the inventor of contemporary Italian television.
“Nobody was able to interview and stir up freewheeling conversation like he did,” Aldo Grasso, the television critic for the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, wrote in a column on Friday. “In many years, he adopted different formulas; each one of them generated a segment for much of contemporary television.”
In one of the most popular programs, “The Maurizio Costanzo Show,” which aired in different formats from 1982 to 2022, guests would join him on a theater stage, a few at a time, sitting in a horseshoe formation, while he bounced among the guests. On any one night, the guests might include politicians, actors, singers and sundry celebrities, who interacted and, at times, argued with one another, as well as with members of the audience.
He had a talent for discovering quirky personalities, some of whom became fixtures on Italian television, while others became politicians. He opened the door to performers who had traditionally been shut out. In 1999, for example, he invited the drag queen Platinette, the stage name of Mauro Coruzzi, to appear on his show, paving the way for Platinette’s national success in a conservative country that still limits civil rights for gay couples.
And he brought to the national stage largely unknown professionals whose style had captured his curiosity.
“I am one of the thousands of characters discovered by him,” Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and currently Italy’s deputy culture minister, said on Italian television on Friday.
Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, saluted Mr. Costanzo on Twitter as an “icon of journalism and television, who was able to narrate difficult years with courage and professionalism.”
In 1993, Mr. Costanzo was nearly killed after leading a campaign against the Sicilian Mafia on his show. He and a colleague who worked for the national broadcaster RAI had broadcast a series of episodes about the mafia during which Mr. Costanzo burned a T-shirt that said “Mafia, Made in Italy.” He interviewed the sister-in-law of a mobster to persuade her to renounce the Mafia.
He later said he was told by prosecutors that the campaign had angered Salvatore Riina, then the head of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, who ordered Mr. Costanzo’s murder, directing minions to plant a car-bomb near the theater where he worked in 1993.
But that night, by pure luck, he hired a different car to pick him up from the Parioli theater in Rome, where the show was broadcast. The mobsters, confused by the different car, took an extra second to detonate the 70 kilos of explosives packed in a nearby car and missed them.
“It was a miracle,” Mr. Costanzo said in a TV interview years later. “Nobody got killed.”
Since that incident, he said, he had been living under constant police protection.
Maurizio Costanzo was born in Rome on Aug. 28, 1938, the only child of Ugo Costanzo, an employee at the Transportation Ministry, and Jole De Toni, a homemaker. His father died when Maurizio was 16. He considered his father’s death a “theft,” he said, adding that he kept a picture of him next to his bed and thought about him every day.
As a reporter for his high school newspaper in Rome, he once sneaked out of school to meet with Indro Montanelli, a journalist from Corriere della Sera whom Mr. Costanzo considered a mentor.
He never attended college and started writing for an evening daily in Rome at the age of 17, but he quickly moved to writing magazine articles, radio programs, screenplays and books. He wrote regular columns for several weekly magazines and newspapers devoted to show business, but also for national dailies.
In the 1970s, he hosted one of the first talk shows on Italian television, “Bontà Loro” (“To Their Own Kindness”). But it was with the “Maurizio Costanzo Show” a decade later that he became a national star.
Mr. Costanzo branched out from television on occasion to write or co-write screenplays, including for the 1977 hit film “A Particular Day” by the filmmaker Ettore Scola. In 1966, he wrote the lyrics for “Se Telefonando,” with music by Ennio Morricone. Sung by Mina, one of Italy’s most beloved singers, the song hit the top of the charts. He also taught TV and radio journalism at two Italian universities.
He is survived by his wife, Maria De Filippi, a lawyer who became a well-known television anchorwoman; three children, Camilla, Saverio and Gabriele; and four grandchildren.
As his coffin left a church in downtown Rome on Monday afternoon, loudspeakers played the theme song of his television show as fans lined the streets, many weeping.
“Maurizio’s greatest quality was humbleness,” said Giorgio Assumma, Mr. Costanzo’s lawyer and friend for 50 years. “People understood it and liked him for that.”