Elsa Martinelli, Italian actress – obituary (2024)

Elsa Martinelli, who has died aged 82, was an Italian model turned Hollywood actress best remembered for her leading role opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s African adventure Hatari! (1962); on account of her gamine good looks and sensuality she was described by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1956 as “a kind of Audrey Hepburn with sex appeal”.

In Hatari! she was cast as Dallas, a flame-haired Italian photojournalist proving herself the equal of a macho group of adventurers in Tanganyika who pursue and trap wild animals for zoos; their gruff leader, John Wayne, becomes her sparring love interest.

In one sequence, Dallas escorts a troupe of young elephants to the accompaniment of Henry Mancini’s melodious Baby Elephant March. The elephants had grown attached to her, as she explained to Cinema Retro: “I went there one month ahead of the others just as the baby elephants were born. You see, the trick is to feed them right away. That’s how you become their ‘mother’.”

Hatari! was not universally welcomed, however. The Sunday Telegraph’s critic Alan Dent deplored the film’s treatment of animals, complaining that “the open cruelty of the trapping business as shown here seems to me to put Howard Hawks, the film’s producer and director, to shame”.

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Elsa Martinelli’s breakthrough role (“a new face – one of the world’s most beautiful women,” thundered the trailer) came in 1955 in André de Toth’s progressive Western The Indian Fighter, which was promoted as a blockbuster to rival epics like Red River and Cimarron. At the time she was a leading fashion model in New York, signed to the Ford agency, when Kirk Douglas’s wife Anne Buydens spotted a photograph of her in Vogue and told Douglas: “This girl would make a fantastic Indian.”

She played Onahti, the daughter of a Sioux chief who falls in love with Kirk Douglas’s frontier scout leading a wagon train through hostile territory, and the film’s most memorable scene features the couple cavorting in a river.

In his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (1988), Kirk Douglas remembered that Elsa Martinelli had thought it was a prank when he called to offer her the part; she demanded that he sing Whale of a Tale, the hit song from his 1954 Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to confirm that he really was Douglas.

“Over the telephone,” Douglas recorded, “I had to audition for Elsa Martinelli, three thousand miles away. I started to sing. ‘Gotta whale of tale to tell you, lads.’ Elsa started to shriek. ‘Dio mio! Keerka Doogalas! Keerka Doogalas!’ ”

Elsa Martinelli, Italian actress – obituary (2)

The daughter of a railway stationmaster, Elsa Martinelli was born Elisa Tia in Grosseto, Tuscany, on January 30 1935. She had six sisters and a brother, and the family moved to Rome when she was nine. Her studies did not continue into secondary school and instead she went to work, first in a hat shop, then behind the till in a bar.

In her later teens, while trying on a skirt in his shop, she was spotted by the promising young couturier Roberto Capucci. He was captivated by her slim, long-stemmed figure, high cheekbones and distinctly modern air of self-confidence, and appointed her his house model. She appeared in his first collection.

Elsa Martinelli’s early film roles included, in 1954, an uncredited appearance in a French adaptation of Le rouge et le noir with Danielle Darrieux and Gérard Philipe. From then she would oscillate between Europe and Hollywood, making some 70 films on diverse themes.

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In 1956 she won the Silver Bear for best actress at the 1956 Berlin International Film Festival for Mario Monicelli’s Donatella, in which she played a simple Italian girl whose life is transformed after an encounter with a rich American woman.

In Guy Hamilton’s Manuela (1957) she portrayed a half-caste stowaway lusted after by Trevor Howard’s sea captain. She played opposite Jean Marais in Le Capitan (“Captain Blood”, 1960), and with Jack Hawkins and Robert Mitchum in the big-game hunting adventure Rampage (1963).

She was Hilda in Orson Welles’s version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) and played the protégée of Welles’s film tycoon in Anthony Asquith’s The VIPs (1963). There was also Roger Vadim’s Et mourir de plaisir (“Blood and Roses”, 1960); Elio Petri’s Italian-French science fiction The 10th Victim (1965); and Vittorio De Sica’s Woman Times Seven (1967).

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By the 1970s she had largely retired from films, but she turned up regularly on Italian chat shows and in 1995 published an autobiography, Sono come sono: Dalla Dolce vita e ritorno. Her final appearance in an English-language film was in the all-star comedy-mystery Once Upon a Crime (1992), and her last acting role was in 2006 in a costume drama for Italian television, Orgoglio.

Elsa Martinelli married Count Franco Mancinelli Scotti in 1957, but his mother apparently disapproved of the union and expelled her from the family palace; the marriage was later annulled. In 1968 she married the Paris Match photographer Willy Rizzo; he died in 2013. She is survived by a daughter.

Elsa Martinelli, born January 30 1935, died July 8 2017

Elsa Martinelli, Italian actress – obituary (2024)
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