Ingrid Pitt: Actress and writer who escaped from East Germany and became 'England's first lady of horror'
Thursday 25 November 2010
Statuesque, tawny-haired Ingrid Pitt will be remembered as the buxom actress with exotic looks and an intriguing accent who brought an overt sexuality to Hammer horror, as the star of the studio's first film to concentrate on female protagonists, The Vampire Lovers (1970). She also starred in Countess Dracula (1971), based on a real-life case, in which she played the title character, who drained girls of their blood to retain her youth. After that, her cult following labelled her "England's first lady of horror".
Pitt wrote several books, and had other roles on stage, television and screen, including her memorable German agent in Where Eagles Dare, her secretive librarian in The Wicker Man, and her television appearances in Dr Who. But it is her portrayals of screen vampires, credited with triggering an era of sexual explicitness that mingled nudity and lesbian sex with the gore, that have given her a lasting place in film history. Her daughter Steffanie Blake (who acts under the name Steffanie Pitt) said that she wanted her mother to be remembered "as the Countess Dracula with the wonderful teeth and the wonderful bosom."
She was born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland in 1937 to a Russian father and Polish-Jewish mother, her birth delaying her parents' planned attempt to flee Nazi Germany, via Poland, to the UK. In 1942, Pitt and her mother were interned at the Stutthof concentration camp for three years, but survived the Holocaust. She later joined the Berliner Ensemble in Communist East Berlin "as coffee-maker and stand-by". The group was managed by Brecht's widow, Helene Weigel, whom Pitt credited with saving her from arrest several times. "I constantly had to have political schooling, like everybody else. But I had a big mouth and used to go on about the schooling interrupting my quest for thespian glory – not good in a police state."
Tipped off one night in 1953 that the Volkspolizei were on their way to arrest her, she fled while still in costume as the mute Karin in Mother Courage, diving into the Spree, which runs through Berlin. "It's a long story how I got there, but I ended up in West Berlin in a whorehouse, having a hot bath and lots of brandy."
One of her rescuers was an American lieutenant, whom she married and accompanied to the US, but after the marriage ended she moved to Spain, where a newspaper photograph of her crying at a bullfight led to the start of her film career, with several small roles in Spanish movies: "I had to learn the Spanish dialogue phonetically, which is terribly difficult."
El sonido de la muerte (1964), also known as The Sound of Horror, was the only one of her Spanish films to achieve international distribution. Pitt also worked at the National Theatre of Spain and had small roles in Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) before moving back to the US, where she worked as a waitress between television parts until a fortuitous meeting led to her first important screen role.
"I was in Hollywood appearingin the television show Ironside with Raymond Burr, when I was asked toa poker party at the house of thestuntman Yakima Canutt, who at the end of the evening said, 'There's a part in a film I'm just starting. Why don't you go for that? Go see Brian Hutton and mention my name. Well, some people's names are magic – I got to see Hutton at MGM in three seconds, and he sent me to England to do a screen test for his film Where Eagles Dare (1968), starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood."
Pitt's role as the resourceful undercover agent Fraulein Heidi was a small but striking one, and the film was a huge success. "I think it is a wonderful film, just brilliant – perhaps because Alistair MacLean wrote the film as a movie and didn't write the book first."
Hutton planned to cast Pitt in his next film, Kelly's Heroes, but then decided he did not want any women in it. Pitt was disappointed – "I nearly killed him" – but the following year she was given the first of her signature blood-sucking roles, in the Hammer production The Vampire Killers, based on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, the story of a lesbian vampire who exacts revenge on the townsfolk who killed her fellow vampires some years earlier. Co-starring Peter Cushing, it was the best of several versions of Le Fanu's erotic classic, directed with both flair and taste by the late Roy Ward Baker.
"Tudor Gates wrote a very good script, Baker was caring and understanding, and I don't know a man or woman who didn't love PeterCushing." The film marked a new level of both sex and nudity for Hammer, and the studio gave Pitt a potent follow-up with Countess Dracula, based on the case of Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), a countess who was reputed to have bathed in the blood of young virgins to keep up her youthful appearance. "You couldn't possibly put her real crimes in a Hammer film," said Pitt. "In one scene, I wanted to cut a whore's throat and hang her up by the feet and have the blood rush over me. You can't do that in a Hammer film!" Directed by Peter Sasdy, the film was hailed as another superior product from the studio.
Between these two hit vehicles,Pitt was featured in an Amicus portmanteau film featuring four taleswritten by Robert Bloch, The House That Dripped Blood (1970). Pitt was able to display a sense of humour in the amusing final story, The Cloak, in which Jon Pertwee played an actor searching for authenticity in his portrayal of a vampire, unaware that his co-star (Pitt) is a real one. She teamed with Pertwee again when she memorably played Queen Galleia in the Dr Who adventure "The Time Monster" (1972), providing a sort of love interest for the Doctor's nemesis, The Master. She returned to Dr Who in the 1984 adventure "Warriors of the Deep", playing Dr Solow.
Pitt's role of a close-lipped librarian in the unsettling thriller The Wicker Man (1974) was less substantial than her vampire roles, and may be why she was surprisingly unsympathetic to the film's later restoration and emergence as a cult classic. "Good God, what a bore. It's just much too long. What they cut out was a good thing. It's just more of the same. More of Christopher Lee talking and having this endless rhetorical windmill in his brain. It just goes on and on..."
With film roles scarce, Pitt played guest roles in such television seriesas The Zoo Gang (1974), Thriller(1975), and John le Carré's Cold War thriller Smiley's People (1982), in which she played Elvira. "I love le Carré's stuff. A bit long here and there, but I do love it."
Pitt's first book, Cuckoo Run (1980), was a spy thriller with a heroinedescribed by "Cubby" Broccoli as"a female James Bond". She then colloborated with her second husband, former actor Tony Rudlin, on Eva's Spell (1982), a novel dramatising the events in Argentina during the Peron era. Her autobiography Life's a Scream was published in 1999, and other books include The Bedtime Companion for Vampire Lovers (1998) and The Ingrid Pitt Book of Murder, Torture and Depravity (2000).
In 2008 her last film was released, Sea of Dust, an attempt to fashion a horror movie in the style of Hammer and Mario Bava. Though she hada small role, her name was still considered potent enough for her to get star billing. In recent years, Pitt was a regular participant in horror-film festivals and movie conventions, where she would delight admirers with her vivacity, charm and wit.
Ingoushka Petrov (Ingrid Pitt), actress and writer: born Poland 21 November 1937; twice married (one daughter); died London 23 November 2010.
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