Sandra Milo obituary: Actor, reality TV star and muse of Federico Fellini

Her private life was often fodder for Italian tabloids and glossy magazines

Born March 11th, 1933

Died February 5th, 2024

Sandra Milo, who was best known internationally for her roles in Federico Fellini’s movies 8½ and Juliet of the Spirits – and whose tumultuous love life churned headlines in Italy – has died aged 90.

Milo’s screen debut, alongside comic actor Alberto Sordi in Lo Scapolo (The Bachelor) in 1955, coincided with the golden age of Italian cinema. She went on to work alongside some of Italy’s most famous leading men, including Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman and Vittorio De Sica, and for some of the country’s most renowned directors, including Roberto Rossellini, Dino Risi and later Pupi Avati and Gabriele Salvatores.


But her primary claim to stardom was the two films she made with Fellini, with whom, she claimed in a 1982 book, Caro Federico, she had an off-screen romance that lasted nearly two decades. Fellini, who died in 1993, never spoke publicly about that claim. The Italian media called her Fellini’s muse.

Fellini, who fondly called Milo “Sandrocchia”, had also wanted her to play the role of the glamorous Gradisca in his semi-autobiographical 1973 film, Amarcord, but, she told interviewers, her husband at the time had objected because he knew she was fond of Fellini. “He knew I loved him,” she said in a 2019 documentary about her life. She also said she knew that the production would take her away from her children. “Am I first a woman, or first a mother?” she mused in the documentary. “Maybe I am first a mother, so I didn’t do it.”

With a distinctive voice that often broke into laughter, Milo cultivated an image as a ditsy blond, impeccably coiffed and made up. But family members, friends and colleagues this week recalled her keen intelligence and warmth.

Milo had three children by two partners, and her private life was often fodder for tabloids and glossy magazines. With gaps of varying lengths – including a lull that began in the late 1960s when she raised her children – she worked until her death, most recently on reality television shows.

At 77 she participated in the Italian edition of Celebrity Island: she was eliminated in the semi-final round. Last year she was a contestant on the Italian edition of The Masked Singer, and participated in the second season of an Italian reality programme tracking the adventures of three so-called golden girls (average age: 80).

Sandra Milo was born Salvatrice Elena Greco in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 11th, 1933. She moved with her family to the Tuscany region of Italy as a toddler and recalled experiencing fear and hunger during the second World War.

After a marriage at 15 that lasted only 21 days, she moved to Milan to model and then to Rome to act. She found work and got her big break in 1959, when she acted in Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere, a critical and box office success. Two years later she worked with him again on the drama Vanina Vanini, but that movie flopped so badly, and her performance was so viciously panned, that it nearly derailed her career.

She met Fellini on a beach near Rome, and he cast her as Carla, the lover of the director played by Mastroianni, in 8½, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1964. She won the Silver Ribbon, a prestigious award given by Italian film journalists, for that performance, and again two years later for Juliet of the Spirits, in which she played the free-spirited next-door neighbour of the protagonist, played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina.

When the pandemic began, she began posting feel-good videos and photos on Instagram, sometimes dressed as a good-news fortune teller. In March 2020 she chained herself in front of Palazzo Chigi, the seat of the Italian government, demanding to see prime minister Giuseppe Conte, to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by workers in the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic. In 2021 she received a David di Donatello award, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar, for career achievement. “It’s never too late to get an award,” she told the audience at the ceremony.

Her older daughter, Debora Ergas, was the product of her 11-year relationship with Greek-born producer Moris Ergas. Her son, Ciro De Lollis, and her daughter Azzurra De Lollis are from her marriage to Ottavio De Lollis. She often spoke of the long custody battle she waged for Debora, and how Azzurra, born prematurely, had been declared dead at birth but was resuscitated by a nun.

In addition to her children, she is survived by a grandson.

In 1990, Milo caused a media frenzy by marrying Jorge Ordoñez, a younger man she had met during a vacation in Cuba, but the marriage didn’t last long. In an interview with the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, the photographer who had accompanied Milo to Cuba revealed that the marriage had been doomed because Ordoñez was already married, with two children. Some wondered whether it had been a stunt.

She was often asked about her two-year relationship, which was clandestine at the time, with Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Italian Socialist Party (which she supported), who died in 2000. But she insisted in interviews that Fellini had been her only true love. “The cinema sometimes acclaimed her, and sometimes forgot her,” her daughter Debora told reporters. “But we know that she only spread love and generosity.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times