Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg, who had a bit role as a palace guard in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) and later skyrocketed to international fame in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), died January 11 in Rocca di Papa, near Rome. She was 83.
Ekberg, who had long lived in Italy, was hospitalized recently due to several illnesses. She had been in a wheelchair for many years after breaking a hip.
One of cinema’s most famous sex goddesses, Ekberg was as renowned for her tabloid exploits and alleged romances with Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brenner and Rod Taylor.
She was born Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg in Malmo, Sweden on September 29, 1931. After modeling in her teens, she won the Miss Sweden title in 1951 and traveled to the U.S. in 1952 to attend the first Miss Universe pageant. (Another girl competed as Miss Sweden that year.) Ekberg and several contestants were offered one-year, $250 a week contracts by Universal-International. They were placed in decorative roles in Tyrone Power’s Mississippi Gambler, Take Me to Town, The Golden Blade, and Abbott and Costello Go To Mars.
Only four of the girls had their studio contracts renewed, and Ekberg was not among them. But once Bruno of Hollywood began taking cheesecake photos of her, she soon rivaled Marilyn Monroe as a favorite pin-up of the 1950s. Bob Hope took Ekberg on a USO tour of Alaska and later persuaded John Wayne to sign her to his production company. Ekberg won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer for her performance as, incredibly, a Chinese woman in Blood Alley (1955), starring Wayne and Lauren Bacall. She also appeared with Martin and Lewis in Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956); War and Peace (1956) with Audrey Hepburn; Back From Eternity (1956) with Robert Ryan; and Paris Holiday (1958) with Bob Hope.
In La Dolce Vita, Ekberg played a movie star hounded by paparazzi. The scene where she cavorts in the Trevi fountain in a strapless black dress is one of cinema’s most iconic sequences. Ekberg was frequently quoted as saying that it was she who made Fellini famous, and not the other way around. She recalled shooting the scene in February, when the water was numbingly cold, but in production stills Ekberg can be seen wearing thigh-high wading boots under her flowing dress. Co-star Marcello Mastroianni wore a wetsuit under his clothing.
Ekberg was up for the role of Honey Ryder in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, but lost out to Ursula Andress. In 1963 she co-starred with Andress, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin in the western comedy 4 for Texas. She also made Call Me Bwana (1962) with Bob Hope; and Way…Way Out (1966) with Jerry Lewis.
In 1966 she told Bob Thomas, “Hollywood didn’t know what to do with me. They could only cast me as a femme fatale because of my accent. They didn’t stop to realize that Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman [played] a variety of roles here before me. I wanted to play comedy but was never considered for it. The producers figured I was a sex type and that was that. Marilyn Monroe was able to do it. Judy Holiday did it. But I never could.”•