Michael Cacoyannis: Theatre and film director best known for 'Zorba the Greek'

Only a handful of writers and film directors have seen one of their characters transcend time and space to personify a philosophy for living. The film and stage director Michael Cacoyannis became a cinematographic giant when he transferred to the screen a little known book by the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. From his black and white film, emerged Zorba the Greek, a superman-of-the-people whose name became a byword for an irrepressible zest for life in the face of ignorance and disaster.

Michael Cacoyannis was Cypriot by birth, Greek by tradition and a British subject. He was born in Limassol in July 1922, the son of Sir Panayiotis Cacoyannis an eminent lawyer, political activist with clear ideas about his son's future. In 1938 he sent him to London to study law. However, the outbreak of the Second World War cut off young Michael from paternal supervision and his monthly cheques. He had to fend for himself and, in effect, this liberated him. He graduated from law school and joined the BBC World Service, soon taking charge of its new Cyprus Service. His deputy was Beba Clerides, sister of the RAF fighter pilot and future President of Cyprus, Glafkos Clerides.

Living through the Blitz and the flying bombs, Cacoyannis attracted the cream of wartime Greek refugees at his BBC office at 200 Oxford Street. He also studied directing and acting at the Old Vic and performed during the war under the pseudonym Michael Yannis. In 1946 he met, Kazantzakis who was in London as a guest of the British Council; together they made around 10 programmes for the BBC. Cacoyannis always regretted that the programmes were not preserved.

When he began making films, he wrote his own scripts because he felt he had things to say. His international career began in 1954 with the comedy Windfall in Athens, which was chosen for the gala premiere of the 1955 Edinburgh International Film Festival. A string of films followed which established him as the voice of Greek cinema, including Stella, which starred a melodramatic Melina Mercouri in her debut role, and Euripides' Electra, with the tragedian Irene Papas; Electra opened the doors for Cacoyannis to direct anything he wanted.

He chose Zorba. In a recent interview with the British Cypriot producer Costas Costa, he explained that he only signed up with United Artists to do Zorba the Greek after he had secured Anthony Quinn for the lead; otherwise he would not have made the film. He found Quinn difficult to work with, but, he explained, "the director is in a strong position since he can tell an actor who doesn't deliver the goods, 'I don't agree with you,' and the actor will give in." He also chose a good friend, Alan Bates, to play the character of the reserved Anglo-Greek man heading for Crete who hires Zorba. Cacoyannis found Bates gentle and wise, "a very good balance to Anthony Quinn, who really sometimes spilled over the screen."

Cacoyannis' own background made him ideal to take a book written in Greek and script it in English. He enjoyed playing with the English language to shape the dialogue of an eccentric Greek character, making Quinn's Zorba even more picturesque. One particular line, where Zorba summarises his marriage, gave Cacoyannis great pleasure: "Stupidly I got married, the full catastrophe!" He realised he could have scripted it in "proper" English as "My marriage was a disaster", but felt such a bland Anglicism lacked both humour and impact. The music was by Mikis Theodorakis, whose accelerating "Syrtaki" dance became a signature tune for Greek tourism, not to mention an inspiration for the bouzouki soundtrack of Monty Python's "Cheese Shop" sketch.

During the Greek Junta years Cacoyannis lived in self-imposed exile in Paris and Dublin, directing at the Abbey Theatre and giving it an international impetus. His recalled his Cyprus childhood with some affection when Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived peacefully. But when Turkey invaded in 1974, he made the award-winning documentary Attila '74. He later stoically observed, "We all submit diplomatically to what America decides is best for us." For him, culture was more important and lasting than the vagaries of politics.

Cacoyannis believed old age has its own grace. He was bemused when seeing on television people of his age "dragging their feet across mountain paths or sitting in a café and nodding their head vacuously in the air to the cameras". Nevertheless, in his 80s he initiated and established the Michalis Cacoyannis Foundation to promote the performing arts. The resulting arts complex now stands in Athens with a theatre, cinema hall, exhibition area, restaurant and library. Though Cacoyannis was low-key and shunned the fanfare of publicity, his work does not seem to have come with an expiry date.

Cacoyannis never married but expressed a deep and admiring love for his preferred actress, Elli Lambeti.

Michael Cacoyannis, theatre and film director: born Limassol, Cyprus 11 June 1922; died Athens 25 July 2011.

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