She came on the wing of the 1960s spoof spy thrillers, providing the glamour for a genre that had little to do with MI5 or national security but won audiences with sheer escapism. With her smouldering eyes and raven hair, the actress Daliah Lavi, who has died aged 74, fitted the bill perfectly, not just because of her exotic beauty, but for her linguistic skills and a typically Israeli sense of irony, which should have won her more serious roles.
Some might describe her as Israel’s answer to Italian star Gina Lollobrigida, who was active in the same era, or a brunette Brigitte Bardot. The great fortune of Lavi’s life was to meet the American actor Kirk Douglas when she was 10, and he was in Israel filming The Juggler near the village of Shavi Zion, in pre-Mandatory Palestine, where she was born.
The daughter of Reuben and Ruth Lewinbuk, who came respectively from Russia and Germany, informed Douglas that she wanted to be a ballet dancer. The actor convinced her parents to send her to Stockholm to study ballet. Two years later, he arranged a scholarship for her, but, after three years at the ballet school, low blood pressure put paid to her potential dancing career.
Instead she turned to acting and began her career in serious foreign films — only later moving to the lighthearted turns which helped to make her name.
Lavi’s first film, in 1955, made while she was still a teenager, was a Swedish adaptation of August Strindberg’s novel, The People of Hemso, and the young actress, who was fluent in numerous languages, found that her linguistic skills won her parts in several European ventures. She starred in German, French, Italian and Spanish films (changing her name to Lavi while living in Paris) and in a forerunner of her later roles, also appeared as a femme fatale in Blazing Sand (1960), described as a “matza western” in which she peformed an exotic dance.
Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was her first American film and not only brought her to wider notice, but also won her a Golden Globe Award for most promising female newcomer. She starred in the film with George Hamilton, and it also reunited her with her early mentor and now co-star Kirk Douglas.
She was cast as the love interest opposite Peter O’Toole in Lord Jim (1965), based on Joseph Conrad’s novel and filmed in Cambodia and Malaysia. However, the film was not a huge success and within a year she was taking on less dramatic roles.
In 1966 she played a sexy double agent in The Silencers with Dean Martin and, in the same year, was a Russian princess in the British film parody The Spy with the Cold Nose.
But her place in cinematic history was assured the following year with her part as a secret agent in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. She was part of an ensemble cast including David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen and Orson Welles.
She was a mysterious woman who runs a gambling house in Nobody Runs Forever (1968) and was the villain, opposite Richard Johnson in Some Girls Do, the following year.
Her gothic horror film, The Whip and the Body, directed by Mario Bava and co-starring Christopher Lee as a sado-masochist aristocrat who seduces her won her some minor acclaim, and, after her last film, the western, Catlow in which she plays a Mexican rebuffed by Yul Brynner (1971) she left the world of film and rebranded herself as a singer, on the advice of Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who had persuaded her to record Hebrew songs for the BBC.
In an interview with the Boston Globe in 1964, just before the opening of Lord Jim, she admitted somewhat ruefully that her first love of dancing remained the pre-eminent one — the one, of course, for which Kirk Douglas had provided her ballet education.
Her new singing career in the ’70s was particularly successful in Germany where she was one of the most popular vocalists of her era. She made her greatest mark with Oh Wann Kommst Du? (When Will You Come? And Willst du mit Mir Gehen? (Will You Go With Me?)
Daliah Lavi’s three marriages, to John Sullivan, Peter Rittmaster and Gianfranco Piacentini ended in divorce. She is survived by her fourth husband, the businessman Charles Gans, whom she married in 1977, and their children Kathy, Rouben, Alexander and Stephen; grandchildren Sophie, Ben, Emma, Hannah and Levi; and sister Michal.
Daliah Lavi: born October 12,1942. Died May 3, 2017