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Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: December 29, 1937 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Wirrall, England, GB Profession: actor, producer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Dark-eyed British actress Barbara Steele had the perfect face for horror. Though the Rank Organization starlet had been imported to the United States by 20th Century Fox to play Elvis Presley's love interest in "Flaming Star" (1960), Steele proved an ill-fit for the Hollywood cookie cutter and was replaced after a week of shooting. An actor's strike drove Steele back to Europe, where her haunting beauty was used to good effect in a string of Gothic horror films, beginning with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960). In the ensuing years, Steele skulked through such lurid chillers as "The Horrible Dr. Hichcock" (1962), "Castle of Blood" (1964) and "Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave" (1965), in which she brought sex appeal to characters of both pure and dark motives. Federico Fellini found a place for the slinky actress in his masterful "8-1/2" (1963) while German New Wave director Volker Schlöndorff offered Steele one of her better roles in "Young Törless" (1966), but the glut of cheap European fright flicks in which she found herself mired drove Steele back to North America. No longer an ingénue, she married a Hollywood screenwriter and cashed in on her cult credibility with meaty roles in Jonathan...

Dark-eyed British actress Barbara Steele had the perfect face for horror. Though the Rank Organization starlet had been imported to the United States by 20th Century Fox to play Elvis Presley's love interest in "Flaming Star" (1960), Steele proved an ill-fit for the Hollywood cookie cutter and was replaced after a week of shooting. An actor's strike drove Steele back to Europe, where her haunting beauty was used to good effect in a string of Gothic horror films, beginning with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960). In the ensuing years, Steele skulked through such lurid chillers as "The Horrible Dr. Hichcock" (1962), "Castle of Blood" (1964) and "Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave" (1965), in which she brought sex appeal to characters of both pure and dark motives. Federico Fellini found a place for the slinky actress in his masterful "8-1/2" (1963) while German New Wave director Volker Schlöndorff offered Steele one of her better roles in "Young Törless" (1966), but the glut of cheap European fright flicks in which she found herself mired drove Steele back to North America. No longer an ingénue, she married a Hollywood screenwriter and cashed in on her cult credibility with meaty roles in Jonathan Demme's "Caged Heat" (1974), David Cronenberg's "Shivers" (1975) and Joe Dante's "Piranha" (1978). Finding a measure of artistic satisfaction behind the camera, Steele won an Emmy as the producer of the 1988 miniseries "War and Remembrance" while learning to enjoy her lifetime association as horror cinema's reigning scream queen.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

4.
 Silent Scream (1980) Victoria Engels
5.
 Cle Sur la Porte, La (1978) Cathy
6.
 Pretty Baby (1978) Josephine
7.
 Piranha (1978) Dr Mengers
9.
 Shivers (1975) Betts
10.
 Caged Heat (1974)
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Studied to become a painter
1957:
Joined an acting repertory company
1958:
Feature acting debut, a one line bit part as a student in the British comedy "Bachelor of Hearts"
1960:
Debut in starring role, "Black Sunday/Mask of Satan/La Maschera Del Demonio", an Italian film about witchcraft; first horror role; directorial debut for Mario Bava (released in US in 1961)
1961:
US film debut, Roger Corman's "The Pit and the Pendulum"; voice dubbed by another actress
1962:
Answered an open casting call and won a role in Federico Fellini's "8 1/2"; played the small but memorable role of mistress of one of the protagonist's friends; Fellini reportedly wanted her for more scenes but she was committed to leaving Rome for a starring role in "The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock"; one of the rare early films in which her voice was not dubbed
1966:
Acted in Volker Schlondorff's "Young Torless", a French-West German co-production; played what was reportedly her favorite film role--a prostitute visited by a boarding school student
1969:
US TV acting debut, "Honeymoon With a Stranger", an ABC mystery TV-movie
1974:
Starred as a sadistic, repressed lesbian warden in Jonathan Demme's directorial debut "Caged Heat", a slightly superior exploitation flick
1975:
Played a small memorable role in "They Came From Within/Shivers/Frissons", an early horror feature from Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg
1977:
Rare mainstream Hollywood supporting role in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"; most of her footage was cut from the final version of the film
1978:
Played one of the New Orleans prostitutes in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby"
1978:
Played Dr. Mengers, a military officer, in Joe Dante's "Piranha" (scripted by John Sayles)
1980:
Last film role, "Silent Scream"; played mute family member kept in attic
1980:
Retired from features after the death of her ex-husband, screenwriter James Poe
1983:
US TV producing debut, served as an associate producer on the hugely successful ABC epic miniseries "The Winds of War" (also acted); first collaboration with producer-writer-director Dan Curtis
1989:
Served as producer of the epic sequel miniseries "War and Remembrance" (also acted)
1991:
Starred as Dr. Julia Hoffman on Dan Curtis' NBC miniseries revival of the 1960s ABC supernatural soap opera "Dark Shadows"
1991:
Reprised the role of Julia Hoffman for the short-lived series revival of "Dark Shadows"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"This British actress is revered by her fans for her talent, emotional range, wit, intelligence, erotic sexuality, and a beauty that is mysterious and unique. . . her face can be either evil or sweet, depending on the beholder. So in "Black Sunday", she was effective playing both the evil vampire-witch and the gentle heroine; in other horror films, she alternated between heroines and wicked women with blood lusts [often in the same film!]."--From "Cult Movie Stars" by Danny Peary (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Remarking on the peculiar hybrid quality of Italian horror films, British film critic Kim Newman writes in "Nightmare Movies" (NY: Harmony Books, 1988): "The happiest result of this curious anglophilia was the career of Barbara Steele, who became typecast as a witchlike FEMME FATALE after her performances in [Mario] Bava's "La Maschera del demonio" ("Mask of Satan") (1960) and [Riccardo] Freda's "L'Orrible segretto del Dr. Hitchcock" ("The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock") (1962). Blessed with a haunted face and a dry-ice sensuality, Steele is one of the screen's great vampires, although since she was once quoted as never wanting 'to climb out of another fucking coffin again' she is probably unhappy with the distinction."

Writing on "Black Sunday" in "5001 Nights at the Movies" (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), Pauline Kael observes: "The resurrected 200-year-old witch Princess Asa and the beautiful Princess Katia are both played by the English actress Barbara Steele in a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable; in both roles, she looks like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance. But you wouldn't want her to be any different."

In the "Encyclopedia of European Cinema" (NY: Facts on File, 1995), Carol Jenks wrote: "Steele has always maintained that anyone could have played the role [in "Black Sunday"], but the film is structured around her physical presence. . . . Her operatic, gestural style of performance brought back the figure of the silent film diva, but it was her face in close-up that inspired a unique fetishistic fascination. With her chalky skin, high cheekbones and flowing black hair, she became the paradoxical image of a living-death mask, a head of the Medusa which the camera could never fix or penetrate as completely as the mask of the title does when its spikes are hammered into her."

Writer-director David Cronenberg (in an unattributed interview from the Internet) described how he got a former porn actress to cry for "They Came From Within" (1975). After rubbing onion slices under her eyes failed, she insisted that Cronenberg slap her around. It worked.

"Then Barbara Steele arrives, and the first scene she has to do with Sue is when she gives her a parasite kiss. So its pretty tricky; low-budget stuff throws you into that because you have no time for niceties. So Barbara is sitting there, and everybody on the crew is now completely blase about our technique for making Sue cry. . . . It's business as usual. We roll the camera. Barbara's all ready, but I don't say 'Action'. Sue and I go into the kitchen. Barbara's wondering what the fuck's going on. So it's smack, smack, smack; shriek, shriek, shriek. Sue comes out sobbing. Great. Barbara is horrified; there's a look of total shock and anger on her face. I say, 'Action, action. Do it, do it!'"

Cronenberg's narrative continues:

"When it's 'Cut', Barbara stands up (she's real big, and she was in high heels) and literally grabs me by the lapels and lifts me up. She says, 'You bastard! I've worked with some of the best directors in the world. I've worked with Fellini. I've never, in my life, seen a director treat an actress like that. You bastard!' She was going to punch me out. I said, 'No, Barbara, don't hit me. She made me. I hate doing it, I'm afraid to do take two!' 'Really?' she says. 'Yes, really.' Barbara let's me go. 'How hard were you hitting her?' she asks, 'Show me.' She holds out her forearm and I hit it hard. 'That hard?' 'Yes,' I say. 'Hmm.' says Barbara. A pause, and then her eyes fix on me. 'Do I have any scenes where I cry?' That was my introduction to the world of actresses."

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
James Poe. Screenwriter. Wrote Steele a major part in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) but it failed to work out; divorced; died in 1980.

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