Irene Papas, Actress in ‘Zorba the Greek’ and Greek Tragedies, Dies at 96

Irene Papas, a Greek actress who starred in films like “Z,” “Zorba the Greek” and “The Guns of Navarone” but won the greatest acclaim of her career playing the heroines of Greek tragedy, died on Wednesday. She was 96.

The death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Greek Culture Ministry in an email. He did not know the cause of death, but in 2018, it was announced that Ms. Papas had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for five years.

Ms. Papas was best known by American moviegoers for her intensely serious and sultry-strong roles in the 1960s. In “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), filmed partly on the island of Rhodes, she played a World War II resistance fighter who dared to do what a team of Allied saboteurs (among them Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn) would not: shoot an unarmed woman because she was a traitor.

In “Zorba the Greek” (1964), with Mr. Quinn, she was a Greek widow who is stoned by her fellow villagers because of her choice of lover. In Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-winning political thriller “Z” (1969), set in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, she played Yves Montand’s widow, who evoked the film’s meaning with one final grief-ridden look out to sea.

But in the same decade, she was making her name in Greek film versions of classical plays, often directed by her countryman Michael Cacoyannis, who also directed “Zorba.” She played the title characters in “Antigone” (1961), Sophocles’s tale of a woman who pays dearly after fighting for her brother’s right to an honorable burial; and in “Electra” (1962), in which she and her brother plot matricide. She was also Electra’s mother, Clytemnestra, in “Iphigenia” (1977), the drama of a daughter offered as human sacrifice.

In 1971, she received the National Board of Review’s best actress award for her role as Helen of Troy in “The Trojan Women.” Her co-stars were Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave.

Ms. Papas was born Eirini Lelekou on Sept. 3, 1926, in Chiliomodi, Greece, a small village near Corinth, and grew up in Athens. She was one of four daughters of two schoolteachers and entered drama school at age 12. By the time she was 18, she had already played both Electra and Lady Macbeth. But her first professional stage role, in 1948, was as a party-hopping society girl in a musical.

She made her film debut the same year, in Nikos Tsiforos’s drama “Hamenoi Angeloi” (“Fallen Angels”), and appeared in 14 films during the 1950s — some American, some European — before her breakout role in “The Guns of Navarone.”

Ms. Papas with James Darren, center, and Anthony Quinn in “The Guns of Navarone” (1961).Credit… Everett Collection

The director Elia Kazan is often credited with discovering Ms. Papas. On a 1954 trip to the United States, she read a scene from “The Country Girl” for him. The following year, she was given a seven-year contract by MGM, although she made only one film under it: “Tribute to a Bad Man” (1956), a western starring James Cagney.

Ms. Papas’s other films included “Bouboulina” (1959), in which she played an 18th-century Greek revolutionary heroine; “The Brotherhood” (1968), as a Mafia wife (to Kirk Douglas); “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969), as the discarded Catherine of Aragon opposite Richard Burton’s Henry VIII; and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1987), based on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez.

The Greek tragedies were the focus of her New York stage career as well. She made her Broadway debut in 1967 in “That Summer — That Fall,” based on “Phèdre,” playing a passionate second wife in love with her stepson (Jon Voight), but the production closed after only 12 performances. The following year, she was Clytemnestra in a Circle in the Square production of “Iphigenia in Aulis.” She returned to Circle in the Square as the title character, a woman who kills her own children, in “Medea” (1973) and as Agave, who mistakenly kills her own son during an orgy of drugs, drink and violence, in “The Bacchae” (1980).

She was also a singer. She made two albums of Greek folk songs and hymns, “Odes” (1979) and “Rapsodies” (1986), and created something of a scandal with vocals that were condemned by some as lewd on “666,” the 1971 album by the rock group Aphrodite’s Child.

She had strong political feelings about her country and made them public. In 1967, she risked her citizenship by calling for a “cultural boycott” of Greece after a military junta took control, saying “Nazism is back in Greece” and describing the country’s new leaders as “no more than a band of blackmailers.” She never returned.

Although Ms. Papas spoke in interviews about a desire to give up acting and a regrettable tendency to be too obedient to directors, she continued film acting well into her 70s. Her final screen appearances included “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001), in which she played Drosoula, the formidable mother of Mandras (Christian Bale), and “Um Filme Falado” (“A Talking Picture”), Manoel de Oliveira’s 2003 meditation on civilization, in which she portrayed a privileged actress sailing the Mediterranean.

She married Alkis Papas, a director and actor, in 1947, and they divorced four years later. A brief 1957 marriage to José Kohn, a producer, was annulled. She never married again.

She is survived by her nephews, the spokesman for the Greek Culture Ministry said.

Having played all those characters from ancient Greece, Ms. Papas had a worldview that took thousands of years of history and philosophy into account. “Plato made the first mistake,” she told Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times in 1969, lamenting an unnecessary delay in the scientific revolution. “He began to talk about the soul and morality, and he prevented the Epicureans from searching the nature of man.”

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