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Irene Papas, celebrated Greek actress from 'Zorba' to 'Iphigenia,' has died

A 1952 portrait of Greek actress Irene Papas taken in Paris. Papas died Wednesday at age 96.
International News Photos/AFP via Getty Images
A 1952 portrait of Greek actress Irene Papas taken in Paris. Papas died Wednesday at age 96.

Irene Papas, a Greek actress who became famous worldwide thanks to her roles in such films as Zorba the Greek, Z and The Guns of Navarone, died Wednesday at age 96. With her haunting looks and acclaimed gift for dramatic roles, Papas was also known for her stage work, particularly in ancient Greek tragedies.

The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports announced her death. In a statement posted to social media, the ministry wrote of Papas: "Majestic, stately, dynamic, she was the personification of Greek beauty on the cinema screen and on the theater stage, an international star who radiated Greekness."

Papas, whose last name was also occasionally transliterated as Pappas, was born as Eirini (Irene) Lelekou on Sept. 3, 1926, in the village of Chiliomodi near Corinth, but grew up largely in Athens. By the time she was a teenager, she had begun studying drama. In a career that lasted some 50 years, Papas made over 70 films in her native Greece and internationally.

In the 1970s and 1980, she appeared in several New York productions of classical plays as well as a short-lived 1967 Broadway retelling of Phaedra called That Summer — That Fall.

Papas built her career in Greece in the 1940s and 50s, and was soon championed by the Greek-American film director Elia Kazan, who had her read for him in 1954. MGM gave her a contract the following year, though the only resulting film was a 1956 Western called Tribute to a Bad Man, which starred James Cagney.

In 1961, she appeared in the World War II film The Guns of Navarone, which was partly shot on the Greek island of Rhodes. It was 1964's Zorba the Greek, however, that truly brought her international stardom; she played a young widow stoned and then killed by her fellow villagers for taking a lover.

Like so many other Greek artists and intellectuals, Papas fled Greece during the right-wing military junta of 1967 to 1974, and lived in exile in Italy and New York.

One of her last roles was in the 2001 World War II film Captain Corelli's Mandolin. In 2018, an announcement said that she had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for five years already.

Papas had a gift for letting her facial expressions speak for her characters' inner lives. In Z, director Costa-Gavras' Oscar-winning 1969 thriller about the Greek junta, Papas — who played the widow of a murdered left-wing politician (Yves Montand) — was hailed as unforgettable in portraying the wife's anguish, even though she uttered few words throughout the entire film.

Papas frequently paired with the Cypriot-born director Michael Cacoyannis, who also directed her in Zorba the Greek. Their collaborations included a string of film versions of classical tragedies, such as 1962's Electra, 1971's The Trojan Women, in which she starred alongside Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, and 1977's Iphigenia.

Along with her screen and stage career, Papas used her archetypally smoky voice to make recordings as a singer alongside two musical giants of Greece: the late composers Mikis Theodorakis and Vangelis. She was the vocalist on the 1972 song "∞ (Infinity)" by the band Aphrodite's Child (co-founded by Vangelis) — a project that some denounced as too overtly sexual.

She married the film director Alkis Papas in 1947, but they divorced four years later. In 1954, she began what she later described as a long relationship with the American actor Marlon Brando, which they kept secret for years, until after Brando's death in 2004. In 1957, however, she married film director Jose Kohn; that marriage was annulled.

In a 1984 interview with Morning Edition, Papas said: "I never thought there was a difference between a dramatic actor and a comic actor. I think there are good actors and bad actors ... I would love one day to play tragedy, and the next day to be a nightclub act. Why not?"

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.