Fiery, smoky-voiced Greek stage and screen actress with green eyes and natural blonde hair, adept at both drama and comedy. Melina Mercouri was in many ways a parallel figure to stars ranging from Hollywoodites Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford to Italy's Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, with a star persona manifesting an outsize personality, a penchant for melodrama and a riveting lust for life. An established stage performer by the early 1950s, she made her film debut as a free-living bouzouki cafe singer in 1955 in Michael Cacoyannis' Greek-language film, "Stella", which was expressly written for her. Mercouri achieved international stardom with a number of features directed by the expatriate American director Jules Dassin, whom she married in 1966 and with whom she collaborated on nine films. Among these, audiences probably best remember Mercouri's delightful, performance as a sentimental, happy-go-lucky prostitute in her signature film, "Never on Sunday" (1960). She also brought her volatile screen persona to "Phaedra" (1961), an old-fashioned star vehicle disguised as updated Greek mythology, and was suitably tongue-in-cheek in the enjoyable caper escapade, "Topkapi" (1964) and middling spy adventure, "A Man Could Get Killed" (1966).
Long a political activist who sought to symbolize the soul of Greek national identity, Mercouri lived an off screen life as adventurous as any torrid melodrama she enacted onscreen. An outspoken woman of principle, she was expelled from Greece by the notorious Colonels' Junta in 1967 but eventually returned in 1974 and won a parliamentary seat for the Socialist party in 1977. Mercouri's acting career gradually abated as she become increasingly involved in politics, but she did appear onstage in her native land as well as on Broadway in "Ilya, Darling" (1967-68). She also continued acting in occasional international films, including the trashy "Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough" (1975). Mercouri later became the flamboyant and controversial Greek Minister of Culture and Sciences and gained her greatest attention in that capacity when she successfully lobbied for the return of the Elgin Marbles, classical sculptures which the British Museum had removed from the Parthenon in the 19th century. Mercouri later ran unsuccessfully for the office of Mayor of Athens in 1990 while still retaining her seat in Parliament and returned to her ministerial job in October of 1993, not long before her death from lung cancer complications. For both her acting achievements on stage and screen and for her zestful commitment to Greek art and politics, Mercouri was justly mourned as a national heroine.