Sara Montiel was born in the village of Campo de Criptana, province of Ciudad Real, in the region of Castille-La Mancha, Spain. Her parents were Isidoro Abad, a peasant, and Maria Vicenta Fernández, a door-to-door beautician. The future star was christened Maria Antonia Alejandra Abad Fernández. Barely in her teens, she won a beauty and talent contest held by Cifesa, the most influential Spanish film studio of that era. She was promptly signed to a movie contract and in 1944 made her debut playing a teenager in Te quiero para mí (1944), credited in the cast as “Maria Alejandra”. By the end of 1944 she was given the starring role in Empezó en boda (1944), which introduced her with a more adult image and a new name: Sara Montiel.
In the next four years she appeared in 14 films, including her first international success Locura de amor (1948), which led to a long term-contract in Mexico. She quickly established herself as one of the most popular film actors of the decade. starring in over a dozen films between 1950 and 1954. Hollywood came calling and she was formally introduced to American moviegoers in Vera Cruz (1954), playing Gary Cooper’s love interest. Later she worked at Warner Bros. in Serenade (1956) with Mario Lanza, directed by Anthony Mann, who became her first husband. After starring in Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) with Rod Steiger, Sarita shot El último cuplé (1957) (“The Last Song”) in Spain, a musical production that turned out to be the biggest box-office success in Spain’s film history. It played for over a year in the same theaters in which it opened. A similar reaction followed in Western Europe and Latin America. Sarita Montiel had become the most popular actress-singer of 1957 and a national treasure for Spain.
The unprecedented success of “El Último Cuplé” threw a wrench into her Hollywood career, as she was offered a multimillion-dollar contract to star in four films in Europe. Her next vehicle, La violetera (1958) (“The Violet Peddler”), confirmed Sara’s popularity and broke the box-office records set by the previous movie. The theme song from “La Violetera” became Montiel’s signature song. The soundtrack albums from both films reportedly outsold Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra in the world market. From then on, Sarita would combine the making of films with the recording of highly successful albums and live concerts in four continents. By 1962 she had become a legend to millions of fans worldwide, reaching markets that had previously been uncharted territory for Spanish cinema. Among her many blockbusters of the 1960s were Mi último tango (1960), Pecado de amor (1961), La bella Lola (1962), La reina del Chantecler (1962) and Esa mujer (1969).
However, by the 1970s her interest in films diminished, due largely to the almost pornographic turn of Spanish films in the post-Francisco Franco era when censorship was abolished. Her activities turned mainly to recording and stage work, and she achieved uncontested successes with her stage shows “Sara en Persona” (1970-73), “Saritísima” (1974-75), “Increible Sara” (1977-78), “Super Sara Show”(1979-80), “Doña Sara de La Mancha” (1981-82), “Taxi Vamos Al Victoria” (1983-84), “Nostalgia” (1985-86), “Sara, Siempre Sara” (1987-88) and others.
In the 1990s Sara surprised everyone by branching out into television: Sara y punto (1990), a mini-series of seven one-hour episodes, included a serialized biography of the star, many popular guests (including Luciano Pavarotti and Charles Aznavour, among others) and Miss Montiel singing her greatest hits in addition to new songs written especially for her. Next came Ven al Paralelo (1992), taped in a Barcelona theater where Montiel hosted,sang and acted in comedy sketches in front of a live audience.
It is quite impossible to cover here all the awards Sara Montiel has won in her long successful career but we must mention the “Premio del Sindicato” (at that time Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar) for best actress, won two years in a row for her performances in “El Último Cuplé” and “La Violetera”. In 1972 she was proclaimed an honorary citizen of Los Angeles by Mayor Sam Yorty and was given the gold key to the city. Similarly she has been awarded the gold keys of New York, Miami and Chicago. In 1981 she received Israel’s most prestigious honor, the Ben Guiron Award and in 1983 she was awarded France’s Legion of Honor medal, after a retrospective of her career ran at the Autumn Film Festival in Paris. In 1986 “Nosotros”, a Hollywood-based Hispanic actors advocacy organization founded by Ricardo Montalban, gave her its Golden Eagle Award for life achievement. The trophy was presented to Sarita by her “Vera Cruz” costar-producer Burt Lancaster in an emotional reunion that triggered a standing ovation from all their Hollywood peers witnessing the event. In 1997 she was awarded the “Gold Medal”, also a life achievement recognition, given–rarely0–by Spain’s Academy of Arts and Sciences. The two-hour ceremony was beamed live by national television. In 2008 Sara returned to her hometown to unveil a sculpture with her image at the new Sara Montiel Park. A nearby avenue was also named after her and there was at the same time a dedication ceremony of her newly renovated museum, located inside a 16th-century windmill. In addition, the government placed a commemorative plaque on the house where she was born.
Sara Montiel’s private life has also been a large part of her legend. After divorcing Anthony Mann in 1963, she married three more times (Vicente Ramirez Olalla 1964-1978; Jose Tous 1979-1992; Antonio Hernandez 2002-2004). Before, during and after these marriages she had countless affairs, among them Nobel prize-winning scientist Severo Ochoa and Italian actor Giancarlo Del Duca. Unable to have children, she adopted two during her marriage to Jose Tous: Thais (born in 1979) and Zeus (born 1983). In 2000 she published her autobiography, which became a best seller. Undaunted by the passage of time and ignoring critics who accused her of mishandling her legendary image, Sara Montiel continued living and working at a hectic pace. She kept touring with her one woman show and making guests appearances on television. In 2009 she won a new generation of fans when she recorded “Absolutamente,” an outrageous duet with Fangoria’s vocalist Alaska. Both the record and the promotional video reached the top of the popularity charts and remained there for weeks.
Next Sara recorded some love duets with baritone José Antonio Román Marcos and traveled to the United States for a short tour sponsored by New York’s Cervantes Institute and the universities of Chicago and Cincinnati. In every city she charmed the audiences with her charismatic presence and sense of humor. Back in Spain she continued her activities which now included supporting the singing career of her son Zeus. She appeared in his 2011 “Sex Dance” video and caused quite a stir.
In February 2013 Sara Montiel became the subject of a made-for-TV documentary titled “Sara’s Dream” which aired in Spain to high ratings and great reviews. It was a fitting celebration of her fantastic life and career which came at the right time. A couple of months later, the star who had seemed eternal, passed away suddenly and quietly in her Madrid penthouse. By her family’s request, funeral services were private but the funeral procession, organized by the city of Madrid, was a very moving event attended by thousands who showed up at Plaza Callao to bid farewell to their beloved Sara. She was buried in the San Justo cemetery family plot.
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