Spanish acting legend Sara Montiel dies at the age of 85

The first major Spaniard to make a name in Hollywood, she appeared alongside Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Sara Montiel in 'El último cuplé' (1957), directed by Juan de Orduña.
Sara Montiel in 'El último cuplé' (1957), directed by Juan de Orduña.

Sara Montiel, the first major Spanish star to make it to Hollywood, died at her home in Madrid on Monday at the age of 85.

Her US credits include western Vera Cruz (1954), in which she appeared alongside Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, and Mario Lanza in the drama Serenade, directed by her one-time husband Anthony Mann.

At home, she starred in films such as El último cuplé (1957) and performed memorable interpretations of songs such as Fumando espero and Bésame mucho. One of the country’s most gossiped-about actresses, she was an unmistakable metaphor of the real Spain of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

After the success of El último cuplé she began to star in a series of musical melodramas – and to name her price: “A million dollars a movie.” She also chose all her own songs, costumes and even her timetable: “Because I refused to get up early again. In Mexico and the US I had to get up at 5.30 and six in the morning. Never again!”

Montiel was born María Antonia Abad Fernández in 1928 in Campo de Criptana, Ciudad Real province, a humble agricultural town. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936, she moved with her family to Orihuela in Alicante and attended a convent school where Sister Leocadia taught her to sing.

They love me a lot everywhere Spain. I’m on stage for two hours and they leave delighted"

She made her film debut in Empezó en boda in 1944, alongside the great Fernando Fernán-Gómez: “He was the first man who kissed me. I was 16 years old and I didn’t know how. And he explained to me how they did it in the movies. I thought it was done how it looked: from start to finish.”

Her stage name came from illustrator Enrique Herreros who thought she needed a “forceful surname,” like Montiel. The first part she chose herself, after her great-grandmother.

Feeling her career wasn’t taking off in Spain, she moved to Mexico to make Furia roja for the Hispamex production company in 1950, on the recommendation of the playwright Miguel Mihura - “my first love.” “Ah, what a country Mexico was,” she remembered. “A very professional film industry, in the middle of its golden age. And people could get divorced. A reality that contrasted with the crummy one we had in Spain. […] And I became Mexican, of course. I still have my nationality card in the safe. When I married Tony Mann, in Los Angeles, I got married with my other passport, the Mexican one.”

In total she married four times and is survived by her two adopted children.

She died suddenly in her home in the Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid, having celebrated her 85th birthday barely three weeks before. Although Montiel retired from films in 1974, she never thought about giving up performing and continued to give concerts. “Last year I did six galas. They love me a lot everywhere Spain. I’m on stage for two hours and they all leave delighted. And I do nothing to look after my voice,” she said in her final interview, given to EL PAÍS last October.

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