Christened "the last Greek goddess" by her many fans, Melina Mercouri was best known as an actress and cultural activist, but was also a talented singer who recorded successfully in multiple languages. The granddaughter of the former mayor of Athens, and the daughter of a Parliament member, she was born Anna Amalia Mercouri (sometimes spelled Merkouri) in Athens, Greece on October 18, 1923 (though some sources list that year anywhere from 1920 to 1925). She started acting in her teens, and eventually joined Greece's National Theater, where she found tremendous acclaim as a stage actress.
Mercouri made her film debut in 1955's Stella, and also sang on the soundtrack, which was composed by Greek legend Manos Hadjidakis. She broke through to international audiences with her starring role in the 1960 comedy Never on Sunday, directed by American expatriate Jules Dassin. Playing a free-spirited prostitute, Mercouri was nominated for an Academy Award, and won Best Female Performance at that year's Cannes Film Festival; she also once again sang on the Hadjidakis-composed soundtrack. Dassin directed Mercouri in several more films, including 1962's Phaedra (music by Mikis Theodorakis) and 1964's Topkapi (music by Hadjidakis); in 1966, Dassin became Mercouri's second husband. Meanwhile, Mercouri made her Broadway debut in Ilya Darling, a stage-musical version of Never on Sunday.
As outspoken as some of her characters, Mercouri forcefully criticized the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967-74, and was barred from that country during those years. In the meantime, she made a series of French-language recordings for Universal that sold decently well, though not at the level of her stepson, French pop star Joe Dassin. Her albums during that period of exile included Melina Mercouri, L'Oeillet Rouge, and Je Suis Grecque, but the best-known was 1973's successful Si Melina M'Était Contée, which featured several compositions by Vangelis (including the single "Athenes, Ma Ville").
When democracy was restored to Greece, Mercouri returned home and involved herself in politics; in 1977, she was elected to Parliament as a member of the Socialist Party, and served as the country's Minister of Culture from 1981-89. During that time, she waged a high-profile campaign to convince the British Museum to return the marble sculptures that had once adorned the Parthenon, which endeared her to the Greek populace even more. She ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Athens in 1990, and returned to her post as Minister of Culture in 1993. Unfortunately, on March 6, 1994, Mercouri passed away in New York City due to complications from lung cancer.