The Daily Telegraph

Irene Papas

Actress who excelled in classical tragedies and starred in Zorba the Greek and The Guns of Navarone


IRENE PAPAS, who has died aged 96, was a Greek actress of great power and authority, steeped in the traditions of classical Greek tragedy. She was not convention­ally beautiful, with heavy eyebrows and the emphatic features of an ancient Greek goddess (she was often photograph­ed in profile alongside Hellenic sculptures), but she had an elemental force, a sensuality and a total dedication to her craft that made her compelling.

She appeared in more than 70 films, including The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Also a fine musician, she made two albums of Greek folk songs and collaborat­ed with the Greek musician Vangelis: on 666, the 1971 album by his rock group Aphrodite’s Child, she created something of a scandal with a sequence beginning with a whisper and ending with a scream that sounded like an orgasm.

In 2004, after the death of Marlon Brando, she revealed that she had had a long, secret love affair with the American actor, whom she described as “the great passion of my life”.

Films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), in which she played a tough-asnails Second World War resistance fighter, and Zorba the Greek (1964), in which she played a young widow who is stoned by her fellow villagers for preferring the charms of Alan Bates’s buttoned-up intellectu­al to those of a lovestruck village boy, brought her internatio­nal fame, but it was as a tragedienn­e playing the histrionic heroines of classical Greece that she was really in her element.

She played the title role in Yorgos Javellas’s award-winning adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone (1961), winning the Best Actress award at the Berlin Internatio­nal Film Festival.

The following year she played the lead in Michael Cacoyannis’s Electra which swept the 1962 awards in Cannes, the Telegraph critic describing her performanc­e as a “wonderfull­y persuasive personific­ation of isolation, misery and hate”.

Irene Papas made several films with Cacoyannis, including his 1964 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzaki­s’s novel Zorba the Greek. Mel Schuster, in his book on Greek cinema, observed that as Helen of Troy in the director’s

The Trojan Women (1971) she brought “a force which might indeed have inspired a holocaust”. Her performanc­e won her the US National Board of Review’s best actress award.

She was also praised for her “electric” performanc­e as Clytemnest­ra in Cacoyannis’s

Iphigenia (1977), one reviewer describing her as a “tower of womanly indignatio­n as the wronged queen”.

In person Irene Papas could be as uncompromi­sing as the tragic heroines she portrayed. During the filming of

The Guns of Navarone, when her character is tortured by an SS officer played by George Mikell, she asked for the scene to be reshot, saying: “The torture must look real. I can take it.” He did it again – for real. She took it.

In 1967 at a press conference in Rome she launched an outspoken attack on the military junta in power in Greece, describing them as “no more than a bunch of blackmaile­rs”. She was sent into exile, only returning to Greece after the fall of the regime in 1974.

Her long affair with Brando seems to have been conducted at a similar level of intensity. The pair first met in 1954 in Rome. After his death, she told an interviewe­r from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that she had “never since loved a man as I loved Marlon. He was the great passion of my life, absolutely the man I cared about the most and also the one I esteemed most, two things that generally are difficult to reconcile.”

They had kept their relationsh­ip secret because “we didn’t want to share with anyone this love that wasn’t a true secret but a private one”.

One of four daughters, she was born Eirini Lelekou on September 3 1926, in Chiliomodi, a small village near Corinth in Greece. Her mother was a schoolteac­her, and her father taught classical drama. The family moved to Athens where, aged 12, she enrolled in the city’s Royal School of Dramatic Art. By the time she was 18, she had played both Electra and Lady Macbeth.

She made her film debut in 1948 in Nikos Tsiforos’s Fallen Angels, and achieved wider recognitio­n as one of a pair of star-crossed lovers in Frixos Iliadis’s Dead City (1951), which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival the following year and attracted the attention of Hollywood.

At first American producers seemed unsure what to do with her, and indeed few Hollywood films did justice to her talents. Her debut in The Man from Cairo (1953) was unremarkab­le. In 1955 she was signed up to a seven-year contract by MGM but she only made one film with the studio, Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), a western starring James Cagney.

Her other films included Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), as the abandoned Queen Catherine of Aragon. In Costa-gavras’s Oscarwinni­ng political thriller Z (1969), she played Yves Montand’s widow, and in Lion of the Desert (1980), she joined Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger and John Gielgud in a film about the real-life Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar (Quinn) who fought Mussolini’s troops in Libya, playing the wife of one of Mukhtar’s aides.

She made occasional forays into comedy. In Erendira (1983), she gave a broad, comic performanc­e as the eccentric grandmothe­r of the teenage title character – “quite wonderful”, wrote one reviewer, “as a sort of cross between the Madwoman of Chaillot and the Queen of Hearts, being most positive when she is being most nonsensica­l”.

In 1992 she teamed up again with Cacoyannis in his farce Up, Down and Sideways, giving a charming performanc­e as an open-minded, amorous Greek widow and mother of a gay son.

Her final screen appearance­s included Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

(2001), in which she played Drosoula, the formidable mother of Mandras (Christian Bale), and A Talking Picture

(2003), with Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, in which she played a spoilt actress sailing the Mediterran­ean.

For the past 10 years she had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

She married, first, in 1947 (dissolved 1951), Alkis Papas, a director and actor. Her second marriage, in 1957 to José Kohn, a producer, was dissolved.

Irene Papas, born September 3 1926, died September 14 2022

 ?? ?? Irene Papas: she had a long affair with Marlon Brando, describing him as ‘the great passion of my life’
Irene Papas: she had a long affair with Marlon Brando, describing him as ‘the great passion of my life’

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