10 Fun Facts About Barbara Steele by Kimberly Lindbergs
Barbara Steele became a cult film icon thanks to her memorable roles in a number of low-budget horror movies, but her filmography also includes critically acclaimed art films and interesting British dramas. FilmStruck and Criterion Channel subscribers can currently stream four of Steele’s best movies and when viewed together they become a wonderful, rowdy and wild introduction to one of my favorite actresses and her small but impressive body of work.
I suggest kick-starting your viewing party with Basil Dearden’s neo-noir crime drama SAPPHIRE (’56), which includes Barbara Steele in one of earliest and briefest screen appearances playing a young college student whose friend has been brutally murdered. Follow that with Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic BLACK SUNDAY (‘60) starring Steele in the dual role of Asa Vadja, a 200-year-old Moldavian Princess accused of practicing witchcraft and vampirism, and Katia, her much younger and gentle-hearted ancestor. The third film I recommend is Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½ (’63) where you can see Steele dancing her way into cinema history and last but not least, finish with Volker Schlöndorff’s anti-fascist creed YOUNG TORLESS (’66). In the final film, Steele portrays a seductive prostitute who propositions students at a boy’s boarding school.
Her transgressive filmography isn’t for the timid or easily shocked, but adventurous audiences will find it especially rewarding. Unfortunately, Steele’s roles were often brief, ephemeral moments that haunt her fans, and you’re left wondering why she wasn’t given more screen time or additional opportunities to showcase her talents.
To accompany Steele’s films, I thought I’d compile a list of fun facts about the actress to spark your interest and spur your imagination.
Barbara Steele was born on December 29, 1938 and raised in the British seaport town of Birkenhead near Liverpool. Her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits and she studied dance, piano and acting at a young age but she was especially fond of the visual arts and longed to become a professional painter. A few other well-known Birkenhead residents include the Academy Award-winning actress Glenda Jackson (WOMEN IN LOVE [’69], THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN [’73], HOPSCOTCH [’80]) and Targon Egerton, the 28-year-old star of KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (’15) and KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (’18).
Her interest in the visual arts and antiques drove Steele to study painting at the Chelsea College of Arts in London and in Paris at the Sorbonne. During this period, she was reportedly befriended and seduced by future film director Donald Cammell (PERFORMANCE [’70], DEMON SEED [’77], WHITE OF THE EYE [’87]). Steele has told interviewers that she “wanted to be Picasso” but fate had other plans for the aspiring artist.
To make money while she was an art student, Steele sold copper jewelry and antique prints from a pushcart. During weekends, she could be found peddling her wares to passersby on London’s Portobello Road where she supposedly earned a reputation as a “shrewd dealer.”
Steele was persuaded to become an actress after she was spotted by a director while painting sets for a stage production of Bell, Book and Candle in Glasgow, Scotland. The director was so taken by Steele’s otherworldly beauty that he encouraged her to audition for the role of Gillian the witch after the star of the play fell ill. The character of Gillian was made famous by Kim Novak who appeared in the film adaptation, but Steele would eventually become a star in her own right after playing another witch; the black-hearted Asa Vajda in Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic BLACK SUNDAY.
After a brief career on stage and some modeling jobs, Barbara Steele was discovered by talent agents from Rank Organisation. They signed her on the spot but the British studio didn’t seem to know what to do with the budding actress so they sold her contract to 20th Century Fox. In Hollywood, Steele was put through a torturous star-making routine that involved dying her dark locks blond and pinning her ears. When it was over she was cast alongside Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR (’60) but after some heated disagreements with costumers and director Don Siegel, Steele reportedly stormed off the set. Soon afterward the historic 1960 Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America strikes shut Hollywood down and during the interim Steele decided to return to Europe.
According to Steele, Mario Bava first spotted the actress in a photoshoot she did for a 1958 issue of Life and was struck by her saturnine beauty. Later, while pursuing a stack of acting resumes from the William Morris Agency, he decided to cast the saucer-eyed ingénue in BLACK SUNDAY, a role that made her a horror icon and earned her the nickname “Queen of all Screams.” .
Two of Barbara Steele’s most famous paramours were actors Anthony Quinn and Peter O’Toole. Steele’s affair with Quinn is rumored to have lasted for years and occurred while he was married to Katherine DeMille, the daughter of Cecil B. DeMille. Steele’s romantic fling with O’Toole was short-lived but passionate and roused the attention of the paparazzi who relentlessly pursued the couple in Italy. The situation reached a fever pitch in 1964 leading to a violent altercation between O’Toole and a photographer who had momentarily blinded Steele with his camera’s flash. Steele and O’Toole were both subsequently arrested and questioned for hours by the Italian police but they were eventually let go. Afterward, the authorities attempted to press assault charges against O’Toole but he managed to avoid arrest with the assistance of his stunt double.
During the span of her career Steele collaborated with many talented directors besides Mario Bava such as Basil Dearden, Roger Corman, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, Michael Reeves, Volker Schlöndorff, Louis Malle, Jonathan Demme and David Cronenberg. Despite the impressive scope of her filmography, Steele regularly singles out her work with Federico Fellini in 8 ½ and talks about the Italian filmmaker in glowing terms. In a forward she wrote for the book Fellini: The Sixties, Steele described what it was like to work with the acclaimed director explaining that: “Everyone who worked with him felt they shared a private secret with him — that he and he alone could mirror their souls like a great, slightly ironic Buddha.”
Steele’s only marriage has been to the screenwriter James Poe. The couple were together for nearly ten years between 1969-1978 and they had one child. Poe died in 1980 and today he’s best remembered as the man who wrote or co-wrote a number of Academy Award-nominated screenplays including AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (’56), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (’58), LILIES OF THE FIELD (’63) and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (’70).
The actress has often been a reluctant interviewee and is known to frequently tell tall tales, forget facts and spin entertaining yarns. She most likely does so in order to keep herself occupied while having to answer the same questions over and over again from dull-headed reporters or worshipful fans like yours truly. With that mind, any or all of these “fun facts” could be white lies so enjoy them but don’t assume they’re written in stone. Barbara Steele is an enchanter who weaves her own unique kind of magic and she has certainly cast a spell on this writer.