Monday, January 13, 2014

Elke Sommer Talks with the Cafe About Her Movies, Her Art, and How She Earned the Nickname "The Brute"

A glamorous international star by the time she was 23, Elke Sommer has played opposite leading men such as Paul Newman, Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, James Garner, and Glenn Ford. Born in Berlin in 1940, Elke's film career took off when acclaimed Italian director Vittorio De Sica cast her in the 1959 comedy Men and Noble Men (which starred, but wasn't directed by, De Sica). After going on to headline several European hits, MGM signed her to play Paul Newman's leading lady in The Prize (1963). She subsequently became one of the biggest international stars of the decade, appearing in films such as A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Art of Love (1965), The Money Trap (1966), and The Oscar (1966). She later branched out into singing, appearing in stage plays, guest starring on television, playing tennis and golf, and painting (one of her first loves). These days, Elke still plays golf with her husband of 20 years and supports the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit organization that places homeless pets. Still, Ms. Sommer took time out of her busy schedule to drop by the Café for a chat.

Café:  A Shot in the Dark was one of the funniest comedies of the 1960s. Your performance as Maria the maid was a perfect complement to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. What was it like working with Sellers and director Blake Edwards?

Elke with Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.
Elke Sommer:  Well, as young as I was at the time, I can say that this movie was one of the greatest experiences of my professional life. Blake Edwards was a very strict and tough director who knew exactly what he wanted. And this is helpful for a young actor because it shows you the way. But then, there was Peter Sellers. And he was not only an experienced actor but also a brilliant mind, a creative powerhouse who loved to improvise. He and I shared the same sense of humor so that we had a very close connection during the movie shoot, and I learned so incredibly much from his genius--and his courage when it came to improvising scenes. Courage that Sellers needed because Edwards was not amused. So, they started arguing. And in most cases, it was Peter Sellers who "won." And this explains why Blake Edwards is known for being one of the greatest directors of his time. He took his actors seriously and the result was one of funniest comedies of the 1960s--your words!

Café:  You made two films with acclaimed horror director Mario Bava: Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil. How would you describe Bava as a director?

ES:  Mario Bava was one of the kindest, sweetest, and most fatherly men I ever knew. Actually, I called him my "papa." He was a very decisive director who told you exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, and I clung to his every word and followed his orders to the letter. Because he was my "papa." And you do what your father says. 


Café:  You made a delightful--and glamorous--villain in the spy spoof The Wrecking Crew (we loved your death scene!). What are your memories of working with Dean Martin and Sharon Tate?

Elke with Sharon Tate.
ES:  Sharon Tate and I loved each other from the start and had a very close relationship. I wouldn't even call it a friendship, as it was more than that. I was a single child and Sharon was the sister I had never had. She left me with many wonderful memories and with an incredible gift: She got me acquainted with the music of Leonard Cohen and for that I will forever be grateful to her. Dean Martin was a close friend of mine. We had done twenty episodes of his Dean Martin Show together, dancing, singing, and acting together. So, working with him on The Wrecking Crew was just another experience of working with a great partner and a wonderful colleague. And the death scene that you are mentioning: You are right--I died in perfect beauty.

Café:  Of your English-language films, which one was your favorite and why?

ES:  The Oscar with Stephen Boyd--a movie that, in my opinion, did not receive the recognition it deserved. Tony Bennett had his first role in a motion picture in The Oscar and we became friends. We even went to the premiere together: he with his mother, and I with my mother. And he felt inspired by my paintings and started painting himself.

Café:  You appeared with most of the great comedians of the 1960s: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, and Peter Sellers. Who was the funniest and why?

Elke with Jack Benny.
ES:  Clearly Jack Benny because this genius had a genuine twinkle in his eye and his sense of delivery and timing was spot-on and his unbelievable ability to improvise did not distort the script, but contributed to the final product turning each and every scene into a piece of art. 

Café:  You appeared in a 1971 TV pilot for a sitcom called The Elke Sommer Show (aka Elke) co-starring Peter Bonerz. How did you feel when CBS didn't pick up the series?

ES:  Please don’t think of me as arrogant. I do remember Peter Bonerz, of course I do, but I do not remember that series, not at all. But please don’t hold this against me. I have been working in this business for more than fifty years and you would be amazed how many projects are planned or even started and never come to pass. It just happens and you move on. And, obviously, you forget--completely.

Café:  You've appeared in numerous stage plays, such as Woman of the Year, Irma La Douce, and Cactus Flower. You even won a Joseph Jefferson Award as Guest Artist in a Chicago production of Born Yesterday. What are some of your favorite stage roles and why?


ES:  I have two favorites. Same Time, Next Year because, in my opinion, it is one of the greatest plays ever written, leaving the actors incredible room to create very real characters over an entire lifetime. And Born Yesterday because this is, in a way, the play of my career. It was my first huge success on stage, I played the role of Billie Dawn under the direction of great and famous artists like Leland Ball and Vernon Schwartz, and I played it under my own direction, not only in the U.S. but also abroad in my own productions.

Café:  You became interested in art at a young age and had your first painting exhibition at age 24 in Beverly Hills. How would you describe your artistic style and who were your greatest influences?


Elke Sommer's painting Elephant Girl.
ES:  As strange as it may seem, I have never felt influenced by anyone. I love art and I started loving art at the tender age of four. As to my artistic style, this is kind of hard to explain. I take a white canvas and draw my ideas with a pencil. Then I mix my own acrylic colors and fill them in before edging the pencil lines with black acrylic color. Then I take black watercolor and wash the black lines with a sponge until they are medium to dark gray and use very hard brushes in different colors to create these beautiful shadows where I want them to be. The result is a painting that looks like a stained glass window, like the lead glass windows that we all know from churches. I got the idea for this technique from an old gentleman by the name of Amandeo Mendici, who was already in his late 70s when I was just 20. He showed me his technique, which was different from what I just explained, and I reversed it, so to speak. 

Café:  You played tennis with greats like Ilie Natashe and Billie Jean King. In fact, Sports Illustrated nicknamed you "The Brute." Were you really that competitive on the court?

ES:  Yes, I was. I loved playing tennis and I was really good at it--not good enough to be a professional, but good enough to play celebrity tournaments and win a lot of them. They called me “The Brute” because of my topspin backhand, which must have been…well, brutal. 

Café:  How did you meet your husband Wolf Walther?


Elke and husband Wolf Walther.
ES:  I was in New York City starring in Tamara and had to stay there for four months. So, I had to find an apartment but they were excruciatingly expensive, tiny and loud. As I knew the managing director of the Essex House, I wanted to talk to him about renting a room but the hotel had a new managing director, a man by the name of Wolf Walther. So we met. For him, it was love at first sight. For me, it took a little longer, but not much longer. As you may know, Tamara is a play, in which the audience follows the actor of their choice, and as you may also know, my husband is 6'5" and hard to miss. I saw him every night in the audience, following me. Every night. And that was the beginning of the greatest love story of my life, still unfolding and getting better by the day.


Café:  Do you have any upcoming appearances that you'd like to share with your fans?

ES:  I am constantly receiving offers, but so far, there hasn't been anything that interested me. I am dreaming of a role that’s really different. I would love to play an old hooker or a toothless street person. When this dream part comes along, I will shout it from the mountaintops. Until then, I can finally enjoy what I have, time with my husband and with our dog and my beautiful houses here in Beverly Hills and in Germany--life in a pure and unobstructed form.

You can learn more about Ms. Sommer by visiting her web site at www.elkesommeronline.com.

8 comments:

  1. It was a pleasure to read your interview with such an accomplished and lovely woman.

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    1. What a wonderfully classy actress! I just love that picture of Elke and Sharon Tate.

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  2. Great interview and I echo your thoughts on A SHOT IN THE DARK. Wonder who was responsible for the bit where in frustration, she bites Closeau's shoulder in the car.

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    1. Kevin, I should have asked about the shoulder bite (which I thought was hilarious). I forgot about it until after the interview when I was doing a screen cap of Maria and Clouseau riding in the car naked as they speed away from the nudist camp.

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  3. I absolutely loved reading your interview with Miss Sommer, Rick! I enjoyed both of her theatrical choices and would have enjoyed watching her performances. My family loves "A Shot in the Dark" and we have viewed it together many times. It was one of the last movies I saw with my father and I can still hear him laughing and laughing. This is truly a memory I will always cherish. I think the photos of Miss Sommer are beautiful. I especially loved the picture of her in that exquisite red gown standing next to Jack Benny.

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    1. Toto, I loved hearing about your father laughing through A SHOT IN THE DARK. It's one of my all-time favorite comedies and I have shown it to many relatives and friends. I can testify that it never ages and is equally funny to all ages.

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  4. Hi, Rick, and Hello, Elke! : )
    Such great questions you've asked and the wonderful things she said about her co-stars and especially Jack Benny. What an enjoyable read and a glimpse into the life of such a talented actress.
    All the best!
    Page

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  5. Rick - I was so excited to see that you snagged an interview with one of my favorite 1960s beauties.; After seeing her in the so funny "A Shot in the Dark," I always followed her in the fan mags and kept an eye on her. She sounds like a lovely and happy woman and your interview was just perfect.; Loved it.

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