Helmut Berger, Austrian actor and muse to Visconti, dies at 78

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Helmut Berger, a golden-haired star of European cinema known for playing sinister but seductive characters in films by Italian master Luchino Visconti, his partner of more than a decade, died May 18 at his home in Salzburg, Austria. He was 78.

His death was announced in a statement by his agent, Helmut Werner, who did not cite a cause.

Mr. Berger, an Austrian actor equipped with piercing blue eyes, a coiled intensity and an unsettling knack for projecting menace and charm with a single look or gesture, rose to prominence in the late 1960s and ’70s, when he starred in three feature films by Visconti and emerged as an international sex symbol.

The German press hailed him as “the most beautiful man in the world,” while one of his co-stars, British actress Charlotte Rampling, was more dismissive, describing Mr. Berger in a BBC documentary as “a skiing waiter with a big bum.” He was photographed nude by Andy Warhol, featured on the cover of British Vogue (fully clothed, this time) and traveled with Brigitte Bardot, Bianca Jagger and Eliette von Karajan, emerging as one of the jet set’s most flamboyant members even as he largely shunned the American film scene.

Hollywood was a “plastic world,” he insisted, although he made an exception to appear in American movies, including the drama “Ash Wednesday” (1973), as a playboy who seduces Elizabeth Taylor, and “The Godfather Part III” (1990), as a Vatican banker who tries to swindle the Corleone family.

Mr. Berger said that he owed “everything” to Visconti, whom he met during a 1964 visit to Volterra, Italy, where the filmmaker was shooting the drama “Sandra.” Mr. Berger, who was learning Italian at a nearby college and turned 20 that spring, had taken acting lessons in London and wanted to see how a film set operated. The director, 38 years his senior, was happy to oblige.

They soon struck up a relationship, and in 1969 Mr. Berger delivered his breakout performance in Visconti’s “The Damned,” an operatic drama that followed a German industrial family in the 1930s, with Hitler on the verge of consolidating power.

Mr. Berger, who appeared alongside Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, portrayed the patriarch’s psychotic grandson, who molests his younger relatives and rapes his own mother. His character is introduced in drag, playing Marlene Dietrich with help from a top hat, boa and stockings before his performance is interrupted by the news that a fire has broken out at the Reichstag.

New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby wrote that Mr. Berger gave “the performance of the year,” calling the film “a spectacle of such greedy passion, such uncompromising sensation and such obscene shock that it makes you realize how small and safe and ordinary most movies are.”

Mr. Berger went on to earn a David di Donatello Award, the Italian equivalent of an Oscar, for starring in Visconti’s historical epic “Ludwig” (1973) as the titular “Swan King” of Bavaria, whom he portrayed as a closeted gay man, petulant and tragically isolated. (“I’m a night person like him,” Mr. Berger told Germany’s Gala magazine in 2012. “That’s the only thing we have in common.”)

He appeared in 70 movies and TV shows in all, including as the foppish title character in “Dorian Gray” (1970), an Oscar Wilde adaptation set on the streets of swinging London; as the frail son of a wealthy Jewish family in Vittorio De Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1970), which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film; and as a petty criminal who embarks on an affair with the disgruntled wife of a novelist (Glenda Jackson, married on-screen to Michael Caine) in “The Romantic Englishwoman” (1975).

Mr. Berger also worked with Visconti one last time in “Conversation Piece” (1974), which paired him with American actor Burt Lancaster. He was still partners with the filmmaker when Visconti died in 1976 after a stroke. Mr. Berger fell into a depression and tried to kill himself, later saying that he was saved when his housekeeper discovered him by chance, arriving at his house that morning instead of at 5 p.m. as scheduled.

Over the next few decades, Mr. Berger appeared to increasingly struggle with drug and alcohol use, becoming better known to some viewers for his talk-show appearances than his acting. He appeared inebriated during some interviews and film festivals, and was charged with cocaine possession in Italy, where he was acquitted by an appeals court in 1987. Some of his misadventures were chronicled in a 1998 autobiography, simply titled “Ich” (“Me”), and in a 2012 photo book, “Helmut Berger: A Life in Pictures.”

The latter opened with a declaration of defiance, written in French: “Je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”).

“That says it all,” Mr. Berger told Gala, before lamenting that the freewheeling ethos of the 1960s and ’70s no longer seemed to exist. “There’s no more dolce vita today. I caught just the right time.”

Helmut Steinberger — Berger was a stage name — was born in Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa town, on May 29, 1944. He grew up in Salzburg, where his parents ran a hotel, and said he ran away from home, fleeing an abusive father who “only ever hit me.”

Mr. Berger lived in England, supporting himself with a job as a waiter and then as a model, before moving to Italy and making his screen debut with help from Visconti, who cast him in a small role in “The Witches” (1967), an anthology film of five comic stories.

At times, his relationship with the filmmaker was strained.

“I always did what he wanted. Well, at night I sometimes snuck out through the back door,” said Mr. Berger, who was bisexual and recalled dating American actress Marisa Berenson while still with Visconti. “I had stashed the key for the back entrance. After that, when I slept all day, he initially thought I was ill and he sent me to a psychoanalyst. Later he knew exactly what I was doing. But he never said anything.”

In 1994, Mr. Berger married Francesca Guidato, an Italian actress and model. They separated more than two decades ago but never divorced, according to his agent. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Berger starred as a criminal genius in the French miniseries “Fantômas” (1980), appeared as a Brazilian business tycoon on season four of “Dynasty” (1983) and played aging fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in the French movie “Saint Laurent” (2014). He also ventured onstage in Berlin, performing in Catalan writer-director Albert Serra’s play “Liberté” in 2018 and starring in a film adaptation the next year.

Soon after, he announced his retirement from acting, telling the German tabloid Bild, “I’ve danced at every party. Now it’s time to say goodbye and enjoy the rest of my life with one last drink in my hand.”

He wanted to spend his “remaining time away from the public,” he added, with a nod to the German American actress he once impersonated on-screen: “That’s what Marlene Dietrich did at the end of her career.”

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