Melina Mercouri, during the filming of "Phaedra" at Hydra, Greece, in 1961.

Melina Mercouri, during the filming of "Phaedra" at Hydra, Greece, in 1961. (Gene Donner / ©Stars and Stripes)

HYDRA, Greece — It's not often a fellow gets taken out to lunch by a famous actress.

But then it's not often you meet a personality like Greek actress Melina Mercouri.

It wasn't a matter of choice, though reporters are notorious freeloaders, because with Melina, as she's known by everyone on this island, you simply follow orders. Trying to conduct a "normal" interview with her is like giving directions to Mt. Etna. One observer suggested her name be changed to Melina Mercurial.

She arrived at a local restaurant at the near appointed time in what looked like purple lounging pajamas. On Hydra, referred to as the Greek St. Tropez, you're considered formal if you've got on anything more than slacks and T-shirt.

The volatile actress spent the morning going over lines for her part in "Phaedra," the Jules Dassin-directed film which also stars Anthony Perkins and Italian actor Raf Vallone. "Phaedra" is a modern version of the classical Euripides play "Hippolytus." In the role of Phaedra, Melina falls in love with Perkins. He happens to be her stepson. In one sense the modern script hugs the classical version.

"Sorry to be late," she said extending her hand, "but I must rehearse my lines. Where shall we sit, here, over there? Over there is better. Have you had anything to eat? Then we shall have something to eat."

She immediately started shouting and clapping for the waiter. A discussion of the menu ensued, though in Greek it sounded more like a debate between batter and umpire over the relative merits of their eyesight.

"What would you like to eat? They have stuffed tomatoes. They also have eggs and bacon. I will have a tomato. You too? Okay. Two tomatoes and two beers," she called out in the professional tone of a short-order cook.

In many of her screen roles Melina has been cast as the "shady lady," such as in "Stella," "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Streetcar Named Desire" and as Mary Magdalene in "He Who Must Die." In view of this we advised that a Greek fan thought she might be considered the "first lady" of film prostitutes, especially since the floodgates of fame opened for her in the "Never on Sunday" part. The lunch almost ended then and there.

"You think I am a prostitute in 'Never on Sunday'"? she said. "Show me a prostitute like that and I say, Bravo. If she is a prostitute then I am glad to play the part. It takes a strong character to play that part. It's the best role in all the history of the cinema. I am very proud that I was able to play that part.

"I am angry that they say such stupid things. They say about Bardot that she reveals everything, that maybe she does too much. She is a feminine, that is what she is. What do they want? The part in `Never on Sunday' is the best role that I played."

We asked if her relatives objected to the roles she has been playing, since she comes from one of the oldest and most prominent families in Greece. Her father is currently a member of the Greek parliament and her grandfather had been mayor of Athens for 30 years.

"Object? Why should they object. Besides I do what I want to do."

She proved that when she was 17 by marrying a wealthy Athenian.

Why did she choose acting when she could easily have been a socialite?

"I act because I can do nothing else. It is because it's what I like to do. I have no maxims for life. I only know what is good for me. For me what is good is to love. I care very much for human beings. I think if you have love in your heart, you can always. find people to love."

As for "Phaedra," she claims "people want to see a tender love story, but a different one, how you say, not a common thing. 'Phaedra' is that kind of story. It is a beautiful story."

Though committed for the next two years to movie and play contracts, her biggest ambition is to play the role of Cleopatra "in Greek," she emphasized.

She performs in several languages but says her Greek and French are best.

"But for the films I think the English language is best of all. It is more direct. You say what you mean," a facility she seems to have perfected.

Tony Perkins arrived and we asked how she liked working with him.

"I love him. I love him. I adore him. I would do anything for him. Tony, darling, come here."

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