Italian actress Elsa Martinelli, known to U.S. audiences her breakout role in 1955’s The Indian Fighter opposite Kirk Douglas, died Saturday in Rome at the age of 82, according to Italian media.
Born in Tuscany, Martinelli began her career as a model — appearing in the pages of Vogue and on the cover of Life. She then began taking on smaller roles in films, becoming one of the first models to make the crossover into film and paving the way for stars like Cameron Diaz, Sofia Vergara, and Charlize Theron.
A role in 1954’s Le Rouge et le Noir — the French drama film directed by Claude Autant-Lara based on the novel The Red and the Black by Stendhal — would get her noticed by European audiences.
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Kirk Douglas’ wife Anne Buydens noticed too and approached her about playing a part in The Indian Fighter, which Douglas was producing. “She spoke French so I was able to understand what she was saying,” Martinelli told Cinema Retro in 2012. “And so I got started.”
While Martinelli famously passed up a role in 1960’s Spartacus to have her daughter Cristiana, she would continue to have a prosperous career on screen — appearing in over 40 films including Hatari! (1962), The V.I.P.s (1963), The 10th Victim (1965), and Madigan’s Millions (1968).
Roles on TV would follow. Her lasted credited part was in 2005 on the Italian television series Orgoglio.
Throughout it all, she took chances. “I’ve made movies with directors who never did direct before, at least five or six films with novice directors,” she told Cinema Retro. “…I like to take risks. …Because if it’s a special story, I sense that somebody special might be behind it.”
Martinelli was married twice — first to Count Franco Mancinelli Scotti di San Vito, whom she divorced in 1966, and then to Paris Match photographer and 1970s furniture designer, Willy Rizzo, who died in 2013 at the age of 84.