RICHARD KAY: How stars of both genders were bewitched by Helmut Berger

RICHARD KAY: As the legendary actor dies aged 78, how stars of BOTH genders were bewitched by Helmut Berger, the ‘most beautiful man in the world’

As an entrance, it was electrifying. Dressed in the androgynous top hat and stockings in the style of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, he strode on to the screen radiating an erotic and dangerous glamour.

That Helmut Berger’s own life could match the sordid debauchery he brought so vividly to The Damned, the controversial 1969 film which told the story of a German arms manufacturing family and their ties to the rise of the Nazis, was incidental.

In the film, Berger was the heir whose emotional tumult concludes with the rape of his mother and the forced suicide of her lover, played by Dirk Bogarde.

One critic described viewing the catalogue of murder, incest, rape, suicide, transvestism and child molestation as feeling he had ‘spent the afternoon in the reptile house at [London] Zoo’.

Miss Dietrich, however, was thrilled, complimenting Berger, who spent weeks perfecting his impression of her, and sent him a picture of herself inscribed: ‘Who’s prettier? Love Marlene.’

Austrian actor Helmut Berger pictured in 1969

Helmut Berger (right) with English actress Charlotte Rampling (left) in 1984

Uncomfortably for the former screen siren, the answer unquestionably was Berger. With his blue eyes, golden hair and taut, athletic body, the actor who has died aged 78, was dubbed ‘the most beautiful man in the world’. It was a label that was to define him and, ultimately, destroy him.

He was the first man to appear on the cover of Vogue, photographed by David Bailey with his then girlfriend, the actress Marisa Berenson. But appearances were deceptive.

For more than 20 years the Austrian-born star cut a self-destructive swathe through the international jet set, taking lovers of both men and women. Among his more famous liaisons were ones with Rudolf Nureyev, who he found ‘sexually hyper-active’ but whose love of vodka and garlic repelled him, and the film stars Ursula Andress and Britt Ekland, to whom he proposed marriage after her split from Rod Stewart.

His other paramours included Linda Blair, star of The Exorcist; the French model and actress Nathalie Delon (with whom he claimed he enjoyed a threesome with Maria Schneider, the actress later traumatised by her performance in the explicit Last Tango In Paris); and Anita Pallenberg, lover of two Rolling Stones, Keith Richards and Brian Jones.

But along with the sex, there were the drugs. During the 1970s he snorted so much cocaine he commissioned the jewellery house Bulgari to make him a straw out of gold which he wore around his neck on a chain. He also kept a golden razor blade for cutting lines of the drug.

In the world before Aids, Berger was the symbolic figure of bisexual promiscuity. After a ‘wild’ affair with Linda Blair in Hollywood’s louche Chateau Marmont hotel, he confided how he had also had sex with her brother. ‘He seduced me,’ he recalled. ‘It was a great family affair . . . I hope that God will not damn me.’

Helmut Berger and American actress Linda Evans on the set of hit TV show Dynasty

Helmut Berger with Bianca Jagger, the ex-wife of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, in Cannes in 1975 

Years later, ruminating on his lust for sex, he said: ‘When I was young, I wanted to be seduced. Now, I take all the pretty young men into my bed and say, ‘Rock me, babe.’ 

Without sex, he added, ‘I get nervous and hysterical. I take a cold shower’.

He cared little for the niceties of convention.

‘I am tainted by the beautiful things of life,’ he wrote in a memoir. ‘But to all those who only want to see me as an agent provocateur and eccentric I can only say: with every day of my life the number of people I don’t give a damn about grows and grows.’

One such might have been Al Pacino, with whom he fought on the set of The Godfather Part III — Pacino thought Berger’s English not good enough for the movie. Berger, an old-style 1960s hellraiser who had been jailed for brawling in bars and with police on the streets of Rome, put up his fists.

He had, after all, caroused with Richard Burton, whom, he noted, was jealous when he shot a love scene with Elizabeth Taylor, and he slept — platonically — with both Bianca and Mick Jagger.

But his most notorious relationship in which the seeds of both his success and destruction were sewn was with Luchino Visconti, the Italian director of The Damned and other art-house films such as The Leopard, who was both Berger’s mentor and lover.

Austrian film star Helmut Berger pictured in 1970

Mick Jagger and Helmut Berger pictured at a Paris hotel in 1975

They met in Perugia, Italy, in 1964 where Berger, the 20-year old son of Austrian innkeepers, was studying Italian and Visconti was making a film starring Claudia Cardinale.

The director noticed the handsome language student and aspiring actor sitting in a pizzeria. Visconti leant him a scarf because he seemed cold, and invited him to lunch.

Soon, they were living together in Paris and at Visconti’s homes on the island of Ischia and in Rome.

The director tried to keep his relationship with this beautiful boy secret, not least from his servants. The two maintained the artifice by having separate bedrooms. After going to Visconti’s room at night, Berger would be told to leave afterwards and sleep in his own bed.

Then almost 40 years Berger’s senior, Visconti became not just the younger man’s lover but also a father figure and teacher.

He educated him about art and music. He introduced him to the conductors Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, the soprano Maria Callas and to Nureyev, who wanted to live with the young actor but couldn’t offer the security Visconti gave him.

‘For a short time Nureyev was his lover and Visconti his husband and father,’ a biographer noted warmly.

Helmut Berger pictured in 1973

Helmut Berger poses at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles in 1983

Helmut Berger with American actress Linda Blair in Beverly Hills in 1976

For his part, Berger, who liked to sneak out to visit nightclubs while Visconti slept, introduced Nureyev to The Beatles — Ringo Starr was a lifelong friend.

But when the foursome came to dinner, Visconti complained about the length of their hair and forbade Berger to grow his.

There were other bouts of jealousy. On a shopping trip in Greece when Berger tried on countless outfits, the boutique owner commented to Visconti that parents needed patience with their children.

Visconti’s infatuation did not waver and he cast Berger in several of his films, starting with The Witches and then The Damned. It was Berger’s break-out role and saw him nominated for a Golden Globe as the most promising male newcomer.

Suddenly, the boy born Helmut Steinberger in 1944 at Bad Ischl, Austria, who had daydreamed about a life in the bright lights, was on the cusp of fame.

The following year he moved to London to shoot Dorian Gray, a modern reworking of the Oscar Wilde classic about a man granted eternal youth while his portrait ages grotesquely, which could have been written for pretty- boy Helmut.

He appeared in two more Visconti features: Ludwig, in which he acted out the architectural and sexual excesses of the ‘mad king’ of Bavaria; and Conversation Piece, widely regarded as a study of Visconti’s and Berger’s relationship, with Burt Lancaster playing the older man.

By now, the heavy-smoking Visconti had had a stroke and was being cared for by his sister.

Helmut Berger pictured on Santa Monica beach in 1985

Helmut Berger and American actress and model Alana Hamilton in 1976 

Helmut Berger in the 1976 film Salon Kitty

He was also furious that Berger had fallen into the clutches of cocaine, an addiction that exacerbated his lover’s rampant promiscuity and mood swings between what he called the angelic and diabolic side of his personality.

‘It was the jet-set drug,’ wrote Berger. ‘If everybody was on it, I had to be, too.’

On the promotion tour of the U.S. for The Damned he had his first experience with the psychedelic drug LSD. It was also where he met the actress Marisa Berenson. After their photoshoot with Bailey, Berger was also immortalised by Helmut Newton and Andy Warhol.

Of his devilish behaviour, Berger cited his seduction of Nathalie Delon, who was married to the French actor Alain Delon — himself a sex symbol.

‘I really liked her,’ he boasted. ‘We had fun in bed together with Maria Schneider.’ Only to add: ‘To make my success complete I contacted a journalist and made sure than Delon got to know about the whole affair.’

On another occasion, irritated by Richard Burton — Berger was making Ash Wednesday with Elizabeth Taylor at the time — he smeared chocolate on a sofa so that when Burton stood up, his white trousers had an embarrassing stain.

His last meaningful film role came in Salon Kitty in 1976, based on the Berlin brothel run by the Nazis to gather intelligence. Visconti’s death that year sent Berger spiralling further out of control, especially after he learned he had been left nothing in the will.

A year later he attempted suicide with an overdose of pills he had been hoarding. Thanks to the intervention of friends he survived but for ever afterwards he would remain Visconti’s widow ‘until the end of my life’. He was 32.

Helmut Berger with actor Henry Fonda (far right) and his wife Shirley in 1973 

Helmut Berger on the beach in Taormina, Sicily in 1973

In their relationship, Visconti was the man and he the woman. But his first sexual experiences were not with men.

He lost his virginity at 18 to a waitress in Switzerland. Home life was miserable and he had run away. Berger’s parents ran a hotel but his father Fritz was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union and did not meet his son until he was three.He claimed his father would beat him and he was expelled from several schools. In one, monks taught him that sex was a sin.

Desperate to get away, he stole money from his mother and left home in the dead of night, moving first to Switzerland where he worked as a waiter. From there he made his way to London, where he took his first acting lessons and worked in a restaurant on the King’s Road in Chelsea. There he came to know pop stars such as Cat Stevens.

‘Joints were smoked and free love — orgies to be precise — were en vogue,’ he wrote. ‘There were so many of us. You touched your neighbour. It just happened. You are relaxed, a bit high, you caress and want to be caressed. Everything gets very erotic and you fell horny. You undress. Feel free from rules and morals . . .

‘We are all sisters and brothers. A sweet boy turns me on. It feels natural.’

Turned down for admission to the Central School of Speech Drama, he got the odd part in television commercials for shampoo and sherry before moving to Italy, where his passport to success was his beauty.

Portrait of Helmut Berger from 1970

Helmut Berger on the beach in Taormina, Sicily in 1973

Helmut Berger in the 1970 film Dorian Gray

At the time of his 30th birthday, when he threw a ‘bad taste party’ in Rome’s Jackie O’ nightclub, Helmut Berger was the most sought after young actor of his time. Not only was he impossibly good-looking, he was also uniquely gifted performer.

But his beauty defined him and, coupled with the drugs, his career then went rapidly downhill.

Some say that there was nothing left for him to play but himself. Which he did.

Short of money in 1983, he appeared in nine episodes of the soap Dynasty with Joan Collins and Linda Evans. His fellow stars were not friendly.

Instead, he socialised with Hollywood superstars including Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. The studio didn’t approve and he was written out in a plane crash.

Back in Europe he was offered some small roles. In 1992 a fire destroyed his apartment — including paintings by Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso — but his extravagant tendencies had not faded.

Thinking a boathouse the height of luxury, he had one built but never acquired a boat to put in it. A chalet in Austrian ski resort Kitzbuhel which he hardly used was sold.

By 2010 he claimed his only income was a £170-a-month state pension, although this was disputed by his estranged wife Francesca Guidato, a writer whom he married in 1994. He helped raise their stepdaughter but the marriage did not last. In 2015 she accused him of bigamy with a younger man, an accusation that proved untrue.

The beautiful boy returned to his native Austria, with his whirlwind life seemingly at an end.

‘I’ve experienced everything,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel like Helmut Berger either; I’m not him. It’s a stage name.’

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