From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
They finish each other's sentences-sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian. They bicker (she loved Avatar; he hated it). They trade loving glances as they reminisce about their early days together. It's easy to believe Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero have spent no time apart since they first met 44 years ago, when she was cast as Guenevere to his Lancelot in the lavish Hollywood musical Camelot. But in truth the striking pair spent most of the past three decades separated before reconnecting later in life and falling for each other anew. "When you rediscover love, it's even stronger. It's not physical anymore, it's something deep," says Nero, 68. Rekindling an old flame, adds Redgrave, 73, means "you're not impatient to turn somebody into something they're not. You just love them for who they are."

Their bond has helped sustain Redgrave through the recent deaths of her sister Lynn, brother Corin and daughter, actress Natasha Richardson. ("I miss them so much," she says.) But the couple's story also happily mirrors their roles in Letters to Juliet, in which Redgrave plays an English widow who travels to Italy looking for her lost first love-played, naturally, by Nero-50 years later. In real life, the first time the pair laid eyes on each other, it was anything but love. "It was terrible!" cries Nero, recalling his first sight of Redgrave, then 29 and mother of two young girls, Natasha and Joely, now 45 (by her ex-husband, director Tony Richardson, who died in 1991), on the Camelot set in L.A. "I see this woman with blue jeans with holes, no makeup, glasses. I asked the director, 'Are you sure you made the right choice?'"

Then came a note in perfect Italian (Redgrave, who studied the language in school, is fluent), asking him over for dinner. The 24-year-old Parma native's curiosity was piqued. "A beautiful lady opened the door, and I told her I was invited by Miss Vanessa Redgrave," recalls Nero. "And this beautiful lady said, 'I am she.'"

So began an affair that led to the birth of son Carlo (now a director and screenwriter) in 1969-and the pain of a subsequent miscarriage. But the tempestuous relationship ended, and for the next three decades Nero lived in Italy and made dozens of films, while Redgrave cemented her status as a legendary actress whose diverse resume includes such films as Julia, Atonement and Mission: Impossible. Along the way she won Tonys, Emmys and an Oscar and earned a reputation as a left-wing activist with strong views on causes like the Vietnam War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The pair led largely separate lives until the '90s, when they revived their friendship-which became something more. The reconnection "happened naturally," says Redgrave. And on Dec. 31, 2006, they celebrated their love at a party with friends and family (plus a bonfire, ring exchange, poetry readings and disco music). They consider themselves husband and wife, though neither sees the need for a legal contract. Now, with homes in Italy and England, Nero says he and his beloved still spar ("We fight every moment-but in a nice way!"), and Redgrave says Nero still fishes and plays soccer, as he did 44 years ago.

Nero's support has helped Redgrave weather a string of unbearable losses: Daughter Natasha died last year at 45 after a skiing accident; brother Corin, 70, died April 6 of prostate cancer; and sister Lynn died May 2 at age 67 after battling breast cancer. "I treasure every single moment I spent with them," says Redgrave, who has drawn strength "from the love they gave us, from everything they shared with me, their families, their friends, their colleagues ... from their acting, which was superlative; from their hard work and their courage as actors and in their lives."

And so a once-rocky relationship now focuses on a large extended family-and on a simple, and undying, love. "The games are done," says Nero. "All of our tears will be the bond that makes us stronger."