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Acclaimed Zorba the Greek, Film, Stage Actress Irene Papas Dies at 96

September 14, 2022

ATHENS – Legendary Greek actress Irene Papas, who starred in more than 70 films in a career lasting more than 50 years, stealing the screen in everything from Electra to Zorba the Greek, has died at 96, the Culture Ministry said.

Over overshadowed by the more mercurial and equally-gifted Melina Mercouri – who championed return of the Parthenon Marbles and became the Culture Minister – Papas was seen as the essence of Greek beauty.

She portrayed tough, strong-minded women and with a baleful glare from steely eyes could stop a man in his tracks even as his heart melted looking at her, as Basil, the character English actor Alan Bates portrayed in Zorba found.

She was the epitome of Mediterranean culture abroad too, noted Kathimerini in a report on her career, equally adept on stage and cinema – who can forget her mesmerizing performance in Iphigenia – with a regal, commanding presence which kept all eyes on her.

She stood toe-to-toe on screen with tough guys like Anthony Quinn in Zorba, famed actors like Gregory Peck and David Niven in the fictional The Guns of Navarone that gave her an international showcase.

She was born Irene Lelekou on Sept. 3, 1926 and her family moved to Athens when she was seven years old, where, as a teen, she attended the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens, the paper said.

She began her acting career in Greece in theater before moving into film in 1951. Her first film was a small part in Nikos Tsiforos’ 1948 Fallen Angels, and her lead roles in George Tzavellas’ Antigone (1961) and Michael Cacoyannis’ Electra (1962) earned her critical praise.

As did The Guns of Navarone in 1961 and in Cacoyannis’ direction of  Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, which really brought into the international limelight for a sizzling performance. One of her last film appearances was in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in 2001.

She was also fluent in Italian and performed on stage and screen there in many roles over the many decades.

She won the Best Actress awards at the Berlin International Film Festival for Antigone and the National Board of Review for The Trojan Women. Her career awards include the Golden Arrow Award in 1993 at Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Golden Lion Award in 2009 at the Venice Biennale.

Like Mercouri, her opposition to Greece’s military dictatorship (1967-1974) sent her, along with other artists, into exile in Italy and New York and returned when the junta finally fell.

Irene Papas with Karolos Papoulias. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

In 1947 she married the film director Alkis Papas, which lasted only four years until their divorce in 1951 but she kept his name.  Her second marriage was to the film producer José Kohn in 1957; that marriage was later annulled.

In 1954 she met the actor Marlon Brando and they had a long love affair, which they kept secret at the time. Fifty years later, when Brando died, she recalled that “I have 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.”

In 1995, she received the award of Commander of the Order of the Phoenix by the then Greek President Kostis Stefanopoulos. In 2018 it was announced that she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for five years, robbing her of even the memories of her greatness.

Greek actress Irene Papas, sits on a wall at the harbor of Cannes, France, where she enjoys a solitary lunch, visiting the 7th International Film Festival here, April 6, 1954. (AP Photo/Traverso, File)
FILE – From left to right, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, Greek actress Irene Papas, Italian actor Alberto Sordi and American actor Antonio Banderas pose with their International cinema awards “Rodlfo Valentino” during a gala evening in Berlin on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 1996. (AP Photo/Jan Bauer, File)
Irene Papas. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

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