Anita Ekberg, waded into Trevi Fountain in 'La Dolce Vita,' dies at 83

'The idea for ["La Dolce Vita"] is inseparable from the idea of Anita Ekberg' Fellini once said

Anita Ekberg, the busty blond former Miss Sweden who became a Hollywood sex symbol in the 1950s and famously waded into Rome's Trevi Fountain in a revealing, strapless black evening gown in Federico Fellini's classic 1960 film "La Dolce Vita," has died. She was 83.

Ekberg died Sunday in Rome after a series of illnesses, her lawyer, Patrizia Ubaldi, told the Associated Press.

A stunning, blue-eyed beauty who was crowned Miss Sweden in 1951, Ekberg launched her screen career inauspiciously at Universal, where her first credited role was as a Venusian guard in "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" in 1953.

The voluptuous young starlet's career didn't start taking off until after she replaced Marilyn Monroe on a Bob Hope Christmastime visit to Greenland to entertain GIs at an Air Force base in 1954 — Hope's first show filmed for television.

Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who also accompanied Hope, wrote that Ekberg's appearance onstage in a long mink coat spurred so many wolf whistles that they "must have cracked every iceberg as far south as Maine."

In the wake of playing a small part in John Wayne's 1955 adventure film "Blood Alley" — as a Chinese refugee, no less — and appearing in the 1955 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy "Artists and Models," Ekberg won a Golden Globe as most promising female newcomer.

She went on to appear as herself in Martin and Lewis' 1956 comedy "Hollywood or Bust," and she began co-starring in films such as "Back From Eternity" with Robert Ryan, "Zarak" with Victor Mature and "Paris Holiday" with Hope.

Much more notably at the time, she played the supporting role of Henry Fonda's unfaithful wife in "War and Peace," director King Vidor's 1956 big-budget epic. The role led to Ekberg appearing on the cover of Life magazine in costume as Princess Helene, along with an inside photo spread on her.

In reviewing "War and Peace" for The Times, film critic Edwin Schallert noted that Ekberg "is immensely forceful in her dramatic scenes."

But it wasn't her acting ability that generated worldwide interest in the Swede with the 39-22-37 measurements, as duly noted in a 1955 Playboy magazine pictorial.

Hope, who had introduced her to his GI audience as "the greatest thing to come out of Sweden since smorgasbord," joked that "her parents got the Nobel prize for architecture."

But Hope's crack was topped by singer Ethel Merman, who once called Ekberg "the thinking man's dunce cap — two of them!"

On screen, Ekberg's most memorable role was in "La Dolce Vita."

Fellini's tale of Roman high life starred Marcello Mastroianni as a gossip journalist named Marcello; and Ekberg as Sylvia, a glamorous Hollywood star who can't resist getting wet in the majestic Trevi Fountain during a late-night stroll.

"Marcello, come here. Hurry up," she says, beckoning to a captivated Mastroianni and then placing her outstretched arms under the cascading water as she awaits him.

"People still think of it as Anita's fountain," Ekberg said after fans spotted her during a return visit to it for a 1999 documentary.

"The idea for the film," Fellini once said of "La Dolce Vita," "is inseparable from the idea of Anita Ekberg."

She later appeared in Fellini's segment of the 1962 film "Boccaccio '70," in which she played a sexy billboard image that comes to life; and she played herself in Fellini's "The Clowns" (1970) and "Intervista" (1987).

When Playboy compiled its list of the "100 Sexiest Stars of the Century" in 1999, Ekberg was ranked No. 14 (with Monroe at No. 1).

One of eight children, she was born Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg on Sept. 29, 1931, in Malmo, Sweden, where her father was the harbor master and where she became a model as a teenager.

After winning the title of Miss Malmo, Ekberg was crowned Miss Sweden. Along with her title, the 20-year-old received a trip to the United States, where she was guest of honor at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, N.J., and where, according to a 1951 Life magazine story on her, she was "the most photographed, most pursued and most popular girl" at the event.

In Hollywood, she earned the nickname "The Iceberg." She later said it was because she was blunt.

"I say what I think to the face," Ekberg told the Daily Mail in 1999. "Producers and directors were not used to that. I let them know that I choose my own friends."

While being groomed as a starlet, she recalled, "I was tremendously spoiled by Universal Studios. With my first paycheck, I bought a cocktail dress and mink stole."

She did not go unnoticed. During her Hollywood heyday in the '50s, she was romantically linked to Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Yul Brynner and Frank Sinatra.

Twice married and divorced — to British actor Anthony Steel and actor Rik Van Nutter — Ekberg had no children.

In 1979, she moved into a small villa in a suburb of Rome.

Over the years, her fabled measurements expanded. She blamed her love of pasta, chocolate, vodka, beer and wine.

"I'm very much bigger than I was, so what?" she reportedly once said. "It's not really fatness; it's development."

In a 2000 interview with Sydney, Australia's Daily Telegraph, Ekberg said that since divorcing Van Nutter in the '70s, "I have not found a man since then to share my life."

"Still, I have a few friends, a lovely garden," she said. "Sometimes I think I will always be remembered because of 'La Dolce Vita.' That's very satisfying. I am Anita Ekberg, and everyone in the world knows me."

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

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