Irene Papas: The Greatest Greek Actress

One of the most well-known Greek actresses of all time is the legendary Irene Papas. Over the course of her fifty-year career, Papas has acted in some of the most prolific Greek and foreign films that were released in the second half of the 20th century.

Papas’ personal life was the subject of rumours and stories throughout her career, as can be expected when one is in the spotlight; at times, these whispers and stories even overshadowed her extraordinary talent.

She was born Irene Lelekou in Chiliomodi, Corinth, Greece in 1926. Chiliomodi is a small village outside of Corinth. Irene’s mother was a teacher, and her father was a classical drama teacher as well. She was clearly influenced and fascinated with acting from a very young age. She would practise acting, while other children played. 

When Papas was seven years old, her family moved to Athens, and that is when her life changed. The young woman could now actually have a chance to pursue acting professionally in the major metropolis. Papas began taking singing and dancing lessons at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens when he was fifteen years old. 

She didn’t like the school’s dictation, and in her opinion, outdated, approach to acting, and was seen as a rebel. While still in school, Papas tried to put her own style on her acting approach; as a result, she was held back a year, but still graduated in 1948.

Following her graduation, Papas devoted herself to acting and appeared in numerous Greek plays. The majority of the plays she appeared in may be regarded as “classics;” Some of her earliest attempts into the realm of professional acting were in tragedies by Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Ancient Greek tragedies.

Papas started transitioning from acting in plays to films three years after finishing high school. Although her concentration changed as she gained notoriety in the film industry, Papas did not completely give up stage acting; throughout her career, she occasionally returned to the stage for exciting productions like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. 

Before 1952, she was able to land a few tiny parts in Greek films, but her breakthrough performance in Frixos Iliasis’ Dead City came that year. Prior to this, Papas had received little attention from the Greek film industry, since many producers thought she couldn’t be commercially successful. However, Papas used the success of Dead City on a global scale to advance her career.

The moment Dead City premiered at Cannes, Papas became a media favourite, and the breathtakingly beautiful starlet was constantly being photographed. She subsequently made the decision to join with the Italian film distributor Lux Film the same year in an effort to advance her worldwide career. 

Her bet paid off, and Irene Papas quickly rose to fame with Hollywood producers. Major American filmmakers became interested in her, which planted the seed for her destiny as one of the most significant Greek actresses of all time. Papas was best renowned for her breathtaking performances in movies based on Greek tragedies including Antigone, Electra, and Iphigenia.

Soon after Papas established herself as an extremely talented actress with an enormous emotional range, she starred in many Hollywood movies that made her a household name internationally.

Her first American film, The Man from Cairo, was not received highly, she quickly moved up. In Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), she played the female lead, Jocasta Constantine, alongside James Cagney.

She then began to take on larger roles in extremely successful movies such as The Guns of Navarone in 1961 and Zorba the Greek in 1964. Sadly, despite the box office success of films that Papas was in, she was  underpaid and was often unemployed; for Zorba the Greek, she was paid only $10,000, and she could not find a role for 18 months following her appearance in Zorba the Greek.

She starred in over seventy films. When she was just 21, papas married film director Alkis Papas. Unfortunately, they got divorced only 4 years later in 1951.

The most fascinating chapter of her romantic life came three years later, in 1954. She met the man she would later call the “love of her life”. 

The young Greek actress began to date the legendary Marlon Brando. Brando is one of the most influential actors in film, and he was at the height of his career in the 50’s, when he met the beautiful Papas. The pair dated secretly and had a long and intense relationship away from the public eye. Fifty years later, following Brando’s death, Papas spoke publicly on their relationship.

“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,” said Papas on the legendary actor of ‘The Godfather’.

Papas would have a second marriage to the film producer José Kohn in 1957. The marriage was later annulled.

Irene Papas continued acting in Rome and internationally for years with her final appearance being in the 2003 Portuguese film A Talking Picture. The legendary Greek actress retired, and now lives in Greece.

Sadly, it was announced in 2018 that Papas had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for 5 years, since 2013. She is now 96 and lives away from the public eye. The iconic Greek actress (from Chiliomodi) will always be remembered as one of the greatest Greek actresses of all time. 

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