R.I.P. Irene Pappas

I obviously have a thing for tall Balkan beauties (I married one) so of course I was touched to learn that the world lost another one yesterday, Greek actress Irene Pappas (b. 1926).

Pappas (sometimes rendered “Papas”) was an international star who performed on both stage and screen in her native country, as well as a great deal in Rome, the English speaking world, and sometimes in France, Spain, Morocco, and other countries. American audiences are most likely to know her from the movie Zorba the Greek (1964), although I seem to have seen her in everything but. I’m quite certain I first noticed her in the Robert Wise western Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) with James Cagney. She’s also in such relatively well remembered pictures as The Man from Cairo (1953) with George Raft, The Power and the Prize (1956) with Robert Taylor, the all star action picture The Guns of Navarone (1961), Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners (1964), Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (1968) with Kirk Douglas, A Dream of Kings (1969, Inger Stevens’ last film), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) with Richard Burton, Bloodline (1979) with Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara, and High Season (1987) with Jacquelin Bisset, James Fox and Kenneth Branagh.

Internationally, Pappas was known for such films as Costa-Gravas’s Z (1969), the 1977 adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, and a 1987 adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Classically trained, with a father who taught classical drama, she began her stage career in Athens, acting in both dramas and the variety theatre. She starred in many screen adaptations of Greek classics, including Antigone (1961), Electra (1962), The Odyssey (1968 and 1997, two versions), The Trojan Women (1971), and Iphigenia (1977), and American stage versions of Iphigenia in Aulis (1968), Medea (1973) and The Bacchae (1980).

In a related digression, my friend Edward Einhorn has just published his adaptation of Iphigenia in Aulis, which premiered at La Mama in 2013. 2013 was also the year that Pappas was diagnosed with Alzheimers, although her last screen credits were in 2007. As with Tito Vandis, one wondered “Why isn’t she in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” But of course in both cases the answer is that they were too Greek; it’s a movie about Greek-AMERICANS.

Sadly this woman who so many held to be the embodiment of Greek beauty was exiled from her home country during the time of the right-wing junta (1967-74). Greece was one of the birthplaces of democracy; Pappas was outspoken in her opposition to the Regime of the Colonels. Fortunately, she was laid to rest in the home of her ancestors.

I recently had occasion to think about Pappas and her kind of roles. In Netflix’s wonderful screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a young actress named Melissanthi Mahut plays the Muse Calliope, who is kidnapped and raped by a greedy author desperate for literary success. That, I said to myself, is an Irene Pappas role. Now, of course, it is an Melissanthi Mahut one. That is the Theogony of the Drama.