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The Fascinating Life of Irene Papas, Prolific Greek Actress

Irene Papas Greek actresses
Irene Papas was considered the epitome of Greek beauty by the media and her adoring audiences. Credit: ABC Television/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Irene Papas is easily one of the most recognizable and well-known Greek actresses of all time. Having enjoyed a career spanning more than 50 years, Papas has starred in some of the most iconic Greek and international films released in the latter half of the 20th century. 

As may be expected when one is in the public eye, rumors and stories about Papas’ personal life swirled throughout her career, at certain times even overshadowing her incredible talent. 

Humble beginnings

Papas was born in Greece in 1926 and grew up in a small village outside of Corinth. Her mother was a teacher and her father taught classical drama. According to Papas, she was fascinated by acting from a young age and would act as a child while other children played. 

Papas’ life changed when her family relocated to Athens when she was seven years of age. Now in the big city, the young girl could finally have a real shot at pursuing acting professionally. By the age of 15, Papas was enrolled in the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens, and took classes in dancing and singing.

However, she was a bit of a rebel when it came to acting, and disliked the prescriptive, and in her opinion, dated approach to the art form which was advocated at the School. Papas tried to put her own spin on her acting style while at school and was held back a year because of it; however, she graduated in 1948. 

Immediately following graduation, Papas immersed herself into acting, and was in multiple plays in Greece. Most of the plays she was in could be considered “classics;” Ibsen, Shakespeare, and ancient Greek tragedies marked some of her first forays into the professional world of acting.

Silver screen debut

Three years after graduating high school, Papas began to make the transition from acting in plays to films. Although her focus certainly shifted and she made a name for herself on the silver screen, she did not abandon the theater entirely; throughout her career, Papas would occasionally revisit the stage for exciting projects such as Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.”

Although she was able to secure some small roles in Greek movies before 1952, that year marked her breakout role in Frixos Iliasis’ “Dead City.” Prior to this, Papas had been neglected by the Greek film industry, with most producers believing that she could not be commercially successful. However, “Dead City” performed well internationally, and Papas took that opportunity to further her career.

As soon as “Dead City” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, Papas became a media darling, and the stunningly beautiful starlet was constantly being photographed. She then chose to sign with an Italian film distribution company named Lux Film in the same year in order to further her international career.

Her gamble proved fruitful, and Irene Papas soon became the name in Hollywood producers’ meetings. She attracted the attention of important American filmmakers, sowing the seed for her future as one of the most influential Greek actresses of all time. Papas was most known for her show-stopping performances in Greek tragedy-based films such as “Antigone,” “Electra,” and “Iphigenia”.

Irene Papas: Hollywood star

After Papas established herself as an extremely talented actress with a huge emotional range, she starred in a long list of Hollywood movies which made her a household name internationally.

Irene Papas Greek actresses
A publicity still of the Greek actress from her 1971 film “The Trojan Women.” Credit: Josef Shaftel Productions Inc/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although her first American film, “The Man from Cairo,” was underwhelming, she quickly moved up the ranks in terms of productions. In “Tribute to a Bad Man,” (1956), she played the female lead, Jocasta Constantine, alongside James Cagney.

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

A fascinating life

However, when people discuss Papas today, her personal life and dating history are often just as much a focus of conversation as is her career of over 70 films. When she was only 21, she married for the first time to film director Alkis Papas. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last, and they got divorced only four years later in 1951.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of Papas’ romantic life came three years later, in 1954. This is the year that Papas met the man she would later call the love of her life, when the young Greek actress began dating Marlon Brando.

Brando is widely considered one of the most influential actors in 20th-century film, and he was at the height of his career in the 1950s, when he met Papas. The pair dated secretly and had a long and intense relationship conducted well away from the public eye. Fifty years later, following Brando’s death, Papas spoke publicly on the matter.

“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 of the legendary “The Godfather” actor.

Irene Papas Greek actresses
Marlon Brando was reportedly the love of Irene Papas’ life. Credit: Studio publicity still/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Her second marriage was to the film producer José Kohn in 1957; that marriage was later annulled. She is the aunt of the film director Manousos Manousakis and the actor Aias Manthopoulos.

However, people are less aware of another fascinating aspect of Papas’ life, which were her political views. Papas was a lifelong liberal, and in 1967, when the Greek military junta first came to power, she called for a “cultural boycott” against the “Fourth Reich.”

Her vehement public opposition to the regime meant that when the junta consolidated its power in 1967, Papas was sent into exile. She lived in Italy and New York during the Greek military dictatorship of the time, before she was able to return to Greece in 1974. She split her time between Athens and her family’s house in Chiliomodi, the village she was born in near Corinth.

Papas continued acting in Rome and internationally for years, with her final appearance being in the 2003 Portuguese film “A Talking Picture.” The prolific actress then retired, and continues to reside in Greece.

Tragically, in 2018 it was announced that Papas had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for five years, or since 2013. She is now 94 and lives away from the public eye, but the iconic Greek actress has certainly left her mark on the world.

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