The most beautiful star of the greatest horror masterpiece of Italian film, Black Sunday (1960): Barbara Steele was born on December 29, 1937 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England. Barbara is loved by her fans for her talent, intelligence, and a dark, mysterious beauty that is unique; her face epitomizes either sweet innocence, or malign evil (she is wonderful to watch either way). At first, Barbara studied to become a painter. In 1957, she joined an acting repertory company. Her feature acting debut was in the British comedy Bachelor of Hearts (1958). At age 21, this strikingly lovely lady, with the hauntingly beautiful face, large eyes, sensuous lips and long, dark hair got her breakout role by starring in Black Sunday (1960), the quintessential Italian film about witchcraft (it was the directorial debut for cinematographer Mario Bava; with his background, it was exquisitely photographed and atmospheric).
We got to see Barbara, but did not hear her; her voice was dubbed by another actress for international audiences. After its American success, AIP brought Barbara to America, to star in Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961); (though the film was shot entirely in English, again Barbara’s own voice was not used). By now, Barbara was typecast by American audiences as a horror star. In 1962, she answered an open-casting call and won a role in Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963); she only had a small role, but it was memorable. Reportedly, Fellini wanted to use her more in the film, but she was contracted to leave Rome to start work on her next horror movie, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962). Being a slow and meticulous director, Fellini’s 8½ (1963) was not released until 1963. (Later, when Barbara was cast in lesser roles in lesser movies, she would tell the directors: “I’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world. I’ve worked with Fellini!”)
More horror movies followed, such as The Ghost (1963), Castle of Blood (1964), An Angel for Satan (1966) and others; this success led to her being typecast in the horror genre, where she more often than not appeared in Italian movies with a dubbed voice. The nadir was appearing in The Crimson Cult (1968), which was mainly eye candy, with scantily-clad women in a cult. Unfortunately, Barbara got sick of being typecast in horror movies. One of the screen’s greatest horror stars, she said in an interview: “I never want to climb out of another freakin’ coffin again!” This was sad news for her legion of horror fans; it was also a false-step for Barbara as far as a career move. Back in America, she met screenwriter James Poe; they got married, and remained together for many years.
James Poe wrote an excellent role for Barbara in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). The role ended up going to Susannah York, and Barbara wouldn’t act in movies again for five years. Barbara returned to movies in Caged Heat (1974); she was miscast: a few years before, Barbara would have been one of the beautiful inmates, not the wheelchair-bound warden, but her performance won positive reviews. In 1977, she appeared in a film by Roger Corman, based on the true story of a mentally ill woman, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977). Unfortunately, her scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. Barbara appeared in Pretty Baby (1978), but she was in the background the whole time, and her talents were mostly wasted. Barbara would appear in two more unmemorable movies. She and James Poe got divorced in 1978, he died two years later.
Barbara appeared in the independent film The Silent Scream (1979). Maybe because her ex-husband was now dead, or because her acting career was going nowhere, Barbara retired from acting for a decade. However, she had a lot of success as a producer. She was an associate producer for the miniseries The Winds of War (1983), and produced War and Remembrance (1988), for which she got an Emmy Award. Her horror fans were delighted when Barbara showed up again, this time on television in Dark Shadows (1991), a revival of the beloved 1960s supernatural soap opera. And she has developed a relative fondness along with a sense of ironic humor about her horror queen status, which was evident in her appearance in the Clive Barker documentary A-Z of Horror (1997). The still-lovely Barbara acts occasionally, her latest film was The Butterfly Room (2012). Even well past 60, Barbara Steele is still beautiful and her fans still love her.
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