Survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, vampire actress was known as Britain's 'Queen of Horror'
Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00
Ingrid Pitt, who died on November 23 aged 73, survived a wartime Nazi concentration camp and went on to star as the voluptuous bloodsucker in several classic horror films, including Countess Dracula, in which she took the title role.
Considered Britain's "Queen of Horror", chiefly on account of her impressive fangs and equally formidable embonpoint, Ingrid Pitt loomed large in a bold and brazen era of erotically charged vampire pictures in the 1970s. She also appeared on television in Doctor Who, and as a judge on the ITV talent show New Faces.
Her screen career had taken off after she played a supporting role in the Second World War action adventure Where Eagles Dare (1968). Her good looks and eastern European accent commended her to Hammer studio executives, who cast her as the seductive vampire Carmilla in the The Vampire Lovers (1970).
The film called for nude scenes, earning Pitt the accolade of "the most beautiful ghoul in the world". Its blend of horror and sex did well at the box office and Pitt was quickly cast as another buxom bloodsucker opposite Christopher Lee in The House That Dripped Blood (1970).
Her third film, Countess Dracula (1971), loosely based on the legend of the bloodthirsty 16th-Century Transylvanian countess Elizabeth Báthory, was less successful, but by then Pitt had established herself as one of the grande dames of 1970s British horror.
Other roles included that of a nymphomaniac librarian in The Wicker Man (1973); Elvira in a television adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War thriller Smiley's People (1982); Wild Geese II (1985); and The Asylum (2000).
She was born Ingoushka Petrov on November 21, 1937, in Poland, interrupting attempts by her father, a Prussian engineer, and Polish-Jewish mother to escape from Nazi Germany to Britain. Her parents were on a train to leave the country when Pitt's mother went into labour, forcing them to get off and seek medical help. Unable to escape afterwards, they were eventually rounded up by the Germans in 1943, when Ingrid and her mother were separated from her father and interned at the Stutthof concentration camp.
In 1945, with the Red Army closing in, the Nazis marched survivors towards Germany; but when Allied aircraft strafed the roads, Ingrid and her mother managed to escape into a snowbound forest in 1945. By the time they were found by the American Red Cross, the war had been over for several weeks.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Ingrid spent three months in hospital and was not expected to recover. But she survived to be reunited with her elderly father in Berlin. In the early 1950s he would take his daughter to the cinema, where she was enchanted by adventure films and Westerns.
On leaving school she enrolled as a probationer at the city's medical school, but was expelled after refusing to dissect a rat as part of her pathology studies. She turned instead to learning shorthand, typing and book-keeping.
In the early 1960s, Pitt joined the Berliner Ensemble, where she worked under the actress Helene Weigel, widow of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had founded the company in 1948. But the political climate in East Germany was not to her liking; neither did her outspoken criticism of communist officials impress the government there.
Her dissent brought her to the attention of the Volkspolizei and she was determined to flee Berlin on the night of her planned stage debut, diving into (and nearly drowning in) the river Spree, which runs through the city. In a romantic twist, she was rescued by Laud Pitt, a handsome lieutenant in the US Army, whom she later married.
The couple settled at Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was based, and later in Maryland, from where he was posted to Vietnam. Meanwhile, she joined a "stock" (repertory) theatrical company. Her roles included that of Blanche du Bois in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but her hopes of stardom stalled when -- in the face of too many empty seats -- she performed a moonlight flit.
After a spell in California with the Pasadena Playhouse, and the break-up of her marriage, she moved to Spain, where a press photographer took a picture of her weeping at a bullfight. It was seen by a Spanish film producer who cast her in several of his films.
Pitt's move into television began when she returned to Los Angeles a few years later. Appearances in episodes of popular 1970s series such as Ironside (with Raymond Burr) and Dundee and the Culhane (with John Mills) led to guest spots on the British talent show New Faces, alongside the regular panellists Tony Hatch and Mickie Most.
She also appeared in two Doctor Who serials, opposite Jon Pertwee in 1972 as Galleia, the Queen of Atlantis, in The Time Monster, and as Dr Solow in Warriors of the Deep (1984). This led to a commission for a new Doctor Who adventure called "The Macro Men", which eventually became a CD in the Doctor Who "Lost Stories" audio series.
Pitt worked in a theatrical touring company founded by the producer Bill Kenwright before setting up one of her own with her second husband and starring in successful productions of Dial M for Murder, Duty Free (aka Don't Bother to Dress) and Woman of Straw. Her last film, following a period of ill health, was Sea of Dust (2006).
Inspired by Alistair MacLean, the author of Where Eagles Dare, Pitt became a prolific writer. As well as her memoirs, her books included a spy thriller, Cuckoo Run (1980), and Eva's Spell (1984), a novel set in Perón-era in Argentina, where she lived briefly after falling foul of an influential film executive in London. "Argentina was a wild frontier country ruled by a berserk military dictatorship at the time," she said. "It just suited my mood."
Her Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers (1998) was followed by her 10th book, The Bedside Companion for Ghosthunters (1999), inspired by her sojourn with a tribe of American Indians in Colorado. Sitting by a log fire with her baby daughter, Steffanie, Pitt was sure that she could see the face of her father smiling at her in the flames. "I told one of the others and he went all Hollywood Injun on me and said something like 'Heap good medicine'. I guess he was taking the mickey." Her Ingrid Pitt Book of Murder, Torture and Depravity appeared in 2000.
She also wrote a history of the Hammer studios called The Hammer Xperience, due to be published next year, as well as regular columns for magazines including Shivers and Motoring and Leisure.
Outside acting, Pitt qualified as a black belt in karate, and in the 1960s trained in a Hollywood gym, or dojo, with Elvis Presley. She also had a passion for cricket and Second World War aircraft, and held a private pilot's licence. After mentioning her interest in aviation on a radio programme, she was invited by the museum at RAF Duxford to fly in a Lancaster bomber.
In the 1980s she became a familiar figure at horror film conventions and festivals.
"It's great meeting the fans,'' Pitt was quoted as saying on her fan site, Pitt of Horror.
"They tell me that I am more beautiful now than when I was making films a quarter of a century ago. All lies, of course, but sweet."
Without doubt, she noted in her memoirs, Life's A Scream (1999), "my entire life was overshadowed by my childhood and the tormenting acts of violence and hate I had to witness. I survived the hell, but hardly anyone else did: 98 per cent of all deportees died. Surviving doesn't make one special -- but it does make one extraordinarily lucky."
Ingrid Pitt is survived by her second husband, Anthony "Tonio" Rudlin, and the daughter of her first marriage.