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Sybil Danning: From Hercules to Bluebeard

When she heard about the gladiator's cloak, Sybil Danning knew that things were not going to be great between her and Lou Ferrigno. This was on the set of 'Hercules,' in Rome, where Sybil was co-starring with the onetime Incredible Hulk.

The tension had been building. Ferrigno had already insisted that Sybil give up the role of Circe, the good sorceress, and play Adriana, the evil Greek princess. Now he wanted her to wear a cloak.

"None of the other gladiators wore cloaks," Danning said. "I was the only female gladiator. Why did I have to wear a cloak? It wasn't fair. Also, all the gladiators rode in together on horseback, except me. Lou wanted me to ride at least five feet behind him."

She seemed amused by his presumption. How could a cloak possibly add to the appeal of Sybil Danning? This evening in Chicago, for example, she was wearing a blazer and pants. There was nothing under the blazer. The regulars in the bar at Riccardo's took turns walking past the table at a snail's pace.

"There was another thing," Danning said. "Ferrigno insisted that the movie be rated PG. It started out as 'Conan Meets Body Heat' and ended up as 'Superman Meets the Hulk.' There could be nothing R-rated in the film. He didn't want to disappoint all the little kids who loved him as the Incredible Hulk."

She sipped her Bloody Mary.

"Well," she said, "this is definitely a 'Hercules' for kids, all right. For the little, little, young, young kids."

When you are known as the Queen of the Bs, you do not develop a lot of false illusions. Sybil Danning has probably been in more different movies in the last fifteen years than any other actress in the free world, and they can't all be 'Citizen Kane.'

"I think the costumes deserved more credit than some people gave them," she said. "One review said they looked like Frederick's of Hollywood. I had one leather costume that was a cross between Late Greek and Early Egyptian. Very authentic. Some things you do for the roles, some things you do for the money."

Before 'Hercules,' for example, she made 'Gladiators,' also with Ferrigno. That was where the tension between them started to build. At about the same time, she made 'Chained Heat,' in which Danning plays the leader of a prison gang. In a few days she was to start filming 'Playing with Fire,' a teenage sex comedy co-starring Eric Brown, of Private Lessons. Then it was off to Brazil to film 'Jungle Heat' ("a female 'Deliverance,' with me in the Burt Reynolds role") and then back to Hollywood for 'Cops,' with Danning on the homicide squad.

Sybil Danning? If the name does not immediately ring a bell, try to think back to the cover of the August 1983 Playboy. That was Sybil on the cover in a chain mail swimming suit, right next to the line Queen of the Action Flicks Heats Up a Ten-Page Pictorial.

I noticed, I said, a lot of leather and chains in the ten-page pictorial. Was that your idea?

"Leather and chains?" Danning said. "Not really. Well, there was a shot of me in the thigh-high leather boots, wearing the sort of chain harness. Is that the one you were thinking of?"

That was the one I was thinking of, I said.

"The whole thing with Playboy has been a long drawn-out affair with a happy ending," she said. "I was first photographed for Playboy back in 1979. At that time I was not ready for total nudity. I told them they could photograph half of me."

The right or left half? I asked.

"Funny. Then the Bo Derek issue came out. Remember? Where you could see everything except her chromosomes? And so my photos were not daring enough. Playboy kept after me, though, and finally, this year, I felt emotionally and physically ready to do a totally nude layout. Also, we made a good arrangement involving display on the cover for both the American and foreign editions. If you're going to do something like that, you want people to know, don't you?"

She unrolled a large poster showing her posing on the cover of Playboy.

"This was a good photo," she said, "but in the Japanese edition they used a more aggressive pose, with my arm up in the air, and you could see everything -- I mean I had a little rash under my arm, and you could even see that. They're supposed to airbrush their photos to make them look better, but they airbrushed nothing on me. Sometimes a little airbrushing doesn't hurt. Remember that cover of Raquel Welch leaning over with the incredible behind? That wasn't all her. She wanted a little more, and they airbrushed it in. And for their thirtieth anniversary edition, they're going to have to give Joan Collins a waist."

How do you know all this stuff? I asked.

"Little birds."

She ordered another Bloody Mary. I asked her where she was staying.

"The Whitehall," she said. "I wonder if Richard Burton is staying there, too. He's in town for 'Private Lives.' They keep their guest list very hush-hush, you know. They won't even tell you if you're staying there."

What would happen if Richard Burton did happen to be at the Whitehall? I asked.

"Nothing. He's happily married. I had my chance."

You did?

"When I was making 'Bluebeard' with him in Budapest. That was the one where I was chandeliered to death."

Let me be sure I get this down correctly, I said. You were chandeliered to death?

"Afterwards, Richard asked me to come into his dressing room. I was such a fan of his I was so scared! He was so sweet, romantic, sexy and tender. There were so many women on the picture. There were eight women in the film, and each one worked one week. I shouldn't be telling all of this. Richard is in town and he might read it."

Just tell the parts he'd be interested to read, I said. He's not crazy about giving interviews. Maybe he'll demand a retraction and I can get an interview that way.

"Well, we were drinking vodka. The next thing I knew, I was swept up in his arms and out into his Rolls-Royce, and there we were, going across the river from Pest to Buda. And he put his arm around me and said, Here I am, a poor coal miner's son, sitting in my Rolls with a beautiful blonde. I'm going to spend the night with you."

And what did you say to that? I asked.

"My answer was no."

And what did he say then?

"He said, All right, then, I'll only spend five hours."

And then what?

"We got to my hotel and I didn't even look back, I went right up to my room, alone. And when I got the door closed, I thought to myself, What an idiot!"

He was?

"No. I was."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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