Elke Sommer

Elke Sommer, originally uploaded by Truus, Bob & Jan too!.

German postcard by Krüger, nr. 900/300. Photo: Georg Michalke.

In the late 1950’s blonde, German Elke Sommer (1940) was a European sex symbol before conquering Hollywood in the early 1960’s. With her trademark pouty lips, high cheek bones and sky-high bouffant hair-dos, Sommer made 99 film and television appearances between 1959 and 2005. The gorgeous film star was also one of the most popular pin-up girls of the sixties, and posed twice for Playboy.

Elke Sommer was born Elke Schletz in 1940 in Berlin to a Lutheran Minister and his wife. The family was forced to evacuate in 1942 to Erlangen, a small university town in the southern region of Germany. Her father's death in 1955 when she was only 14 interrupted her education. In 1957 she worked as an au-pair girl in Chigwell and Hampstead, two expensive residential areas of London. She entertained plans to become a diplomatic translator for the United Nations, but instead decided to try modeling. After winning the title Miss Viareggio Turistica in 1958 while on vacation in Italy with her mother, she caught the attention of renowned film actor/director Vittorio De Sica and began performing on screen. Her debut film was in the Italian feature Uomini e nobiluomini/Men and Noblemen (1959, Giorgio Bianchi), which starred De Sica. Following a few more Italian pictures, which included her first starring role in Femmine di lusso/Love, the Italian Way (1960, Giorgio Bianchi) with Ugo Tognazzi. Within two years Elke made five films in Italy and also two in Germany, the adventure Das Totenschiff/Ship of the Dead (1959, Georg Tressler) with Horst Buchholz, and the interesting noir crime drama Am Tag, als der Regen kam/ The Day It Rained (1959. Gerd Oswald) starring Mario Adorf. She gradually upgraded her status to European sex symbol, and appeared in such films as the sexy Zarte Haut in schwarzer Seide/Daniella by Night (1961, Max Pécas), Douce violence/Sweet Ecstasy (1962, Max Pécas), the drama Das Mädchen und der Staatsanwalt/The Girl and the Prosecutor (1962, Jürgen Goslar) and her first English-speaking picture Don't Bother to Knock (1961, Cyril Frankel) with Richard Todd. Most of the publicity photographs for the latter production showed her in a bikini, and revealed that although she was nothing like as buxom as Sophia Loren, Elke had a flat stomach and superb legs.

Elke Sommer moved to Hollywood in the early 1960’s to try and tap into the foreign-born market. Her sexy innocence made a vivid impression in the all-star, war-themed drama The Victors (1963, Carl Foreman). She received considerable publicity when it was reported that she filmed her scenes twice, with a sexier version made for the European market. Elke played a German girl who sexually gratifies her American boyfriend (George Hamilton) with the full knowledge of her parents because he brings chocolate to the family home. In 1964 she won the Golden Globe as Most Promising Female Newcomer for The Prize (1963, Mark Robson), an espionage thriller with Paul Newman. In the classic bumbling comedy A Shot in the Dark (1964, Blake Edwards), the second entry in the hilarious Pink Panther series, she proved a shady and sexy foil to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. A scene with Sellers and Elke in a nudist camp received enormous publicity, and the film was a huge hit. Besides becoming one of the top film stars of the mid-1960’s, she also was one of the most popular pin-up girls of the time. She posed for several pictorials in Playboy Magazine (September 1964, December 1967).

Elke Sommer was the leading lady opposite hunky sixties stars like James Garner, Robert Vaughn and Dean Martin in such Hollywood productions as the crime melodrama The Art of Love (1965, Norman Jewison), The Money Trap (1965, Burt Kennedy), The Oscar (1966, Russell Rouse), The Venetian Affair (1967, Jerry Thorpe), and the Matt Helm spy spoof The Wrecking Crew (1969, Phil Karlson). The blonde and beautiful Sommer proved irresistible to American audiences whether adorned in lace or leather, or donning lingerie or lederhosen. She continued to make films in Europe as well as America. In 1966 she returned to England to work on the Bulldog Drummond extravaganza Deadlier Than the Male (1967, Ralph Thomas), a film that has minor cult status, mainly because Richard Johnson gives a superb James Bond-like performance, but also because Elke and Silva Koscina were so eye-catching as two sexually-charged assassins. Always a diverting attraction in spy intrigue or breezy comedy, she was too often misused and setbacks began to occur when the quality of her films began to deteriorate. Her title role in the tasteless Cold War comedy The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz (1968, George Marshall) proved her undoing.

Elke Sommer benefitted from speaking seven languages fluently and her career took her to scores of different countries over time. In 1972, she starred in two low-budget Italian horror films directed by Mario Bava, which have both become cult classics: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga/Baron Blood (1972) with Joseph Cotten and Lisa e il diavolo/Lisa and the Devil (1973) with Telly Savalas. The latter film, was later re-edited to make a very different film called House of Exorcism, an Exorcist rip-off. In 1975 Elke went back to Italy to appear in additional scenes inserted by the producer, against the wishes of the director. In those scenes a demonic Elke swears obscenities at her exorcist, and in typical Linda Blair style spits out pea soup and actually vomits live frogs and insects. In England she good-naturedly appeared in the ‘comedy’ films Percy (1971, Ralph Thomas) and its equally cheeky sequel Percy's Progress (1974, Ralph Thomas), which starred Hywel Bennett (later Leigh Lawson) as the first man to have a penis transplant. She also showed up in one of the later ‘Carry On’ farces entitled Carry on Behind (1975, Gerald Thomas) as the Russian Professor Anna Vrooshka. In Germany she appeared in Edgar Reitz’s Die Reise nach Wien/The Trip To Vienna (1973) with Hannelore Elsner, and in Wolfgang Petersen’s thriller Einer von uns beiden/One or the Other (1974) opposite Klaus Schwarzkopf and Jürgen Prochnow.

From the mid-1970’s Elke Sommer worked more and more for tv where she appeared as a guest star in popular series as The Six Million Dollar Man (1976), Fantasy Island (1981) and The Love Boat (1981, 1984). She played in the mini-series Inside the Third Reich (1982, Marvin J. Chomsky), Jenny's War (1985, Steve Gethers), Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986, Marvin J. Chomsky) and Peter the Great (1986, Marvin J. Chomsky, Lawrence Schiller). Sommer also made appearances as a cabaret singer and in time put out several albums. She found a creative outlet on stage too with such vehicles as Irma la Douce and Born Yesterday, eventually becoming director. Since the 1990’s, she has concentrated more on book writing and painting than on acting. Her artwork shows a strong influence from Marc Chagall. She even hosted a tv-series on painting. Nevertheless, on occasion she tackles an acting role, often in her native Germany, like in the tv film Ewig rauschen die Gelder (2005, Rene Heinersdorff). Divorced from writer and journalist Joe Hyams, she has been married since 1993 to hotelier Wolf Walther. Sommer had a long-running feud with Zsa Zsa Gabor that culminated in a libel suit. She now lives in Los Angeles, California.

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia, Love Goddess, Cult Sirens, Brian’s Drive-in Theater and IMDb.

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