Icons. Moira Orfei, 84, died in Brescia, northern Italy, on November 15th. She was an actress for Fellini and in dozens of Sword and Sandal and comedy movies. But her passion has always been the circus.

Moira Orfei, flaming queen among the lions and on the screen

She had a crazy hairdo always up high, a beauty spot on her round and pale face, a 71 feet long and 26 wide camper equipped with a floor in Brasilian marble. She was both queen of the elephants and mean queen in the Sword and Sandal genre – alongside Ursus, Samson and Maciste – and was adored by both Federico Fellini and the early gay universe. All this made a deity out of Moira Orfei, not only within the circus and entertainment circuits, but in the whole Italian culture of the 20th Century.


Way bigger than Madonna or Kim Kardashian, Moira was an actress on the flamboyant screens of the early Sixties’ adventurous Italian cinema, side by side with Steve Reeves’, Gordon Scott’s, Steve Morris’ and Ed Fury’s tufts and biceps. And she was much, much more.

Fellini knew this, even though he was never able to cast her in one of his films, aside from The Clowns, where nevertheless she plays herself. The problem being that Moira was only and solely Moira Orfei, or Moira of the elephants. Queen of the Circus and of a glittering imaginary that’s now been gone for decades.

Moira passed away at 84 on her moving home – a home that not even the likes of Joan Collins were able to own – in Brescia. But only because her circus was there. She was born as Miranda Orfei in Codroipo, near Udine, in 1931, but both her and the cousin Nando spoke and ate strictly Emilian. This as well made the Orfei Circus very Fellini-esque.

In the movies, she has not only done Sword and Sandal and she hasn’t only been a mean queen. She also starred alongside Marcello Mastroianni in Mario Monicelli’s Casanova 70, with Totò in no less that three films – especially Totò and Cleopatra – with Vittorio Gassman, Vittorio De Sica and his son Christian – in Christmas Vacation ’90, where she played a mistress who enjoys whipping Christian himself – with Franco e Ciccio in How We Got Into Trouble with the Army, with Lando Buzzanca in Lucio Fulci’s Dracula in the Provinces, where she plays the role of the sex goddess Bestia Scatenata, who gets bitten by a vampire on the butt.

In terms of her art, she took after the family tradition: her father was the clown Bigolon and her mother was a circus artist who started off very young as a trapezist but knew her way around most things. Her family and her life revolved entirely around the circus. After all she married at 18 years old in Sanremo with Walter Nones, a tamer, and stayed with him her whole life. In that same year, 1960, she founded the Moira Orfei Circus and since then she never stopped traveling Italy and the world with her shows.


But her life wasn’t a bed of roses: in 1972 she was wounded by an elephant who broke 4 of her ribs.

Later on, in 1978, her circus was stalled in Teheran for a “tax related controversy”. Iranian authorities cut Orfei Circus’ supplies of water and electricity and withdraw her employees’ passports. Moira replied with a hunger strike, then tried to kill herself (sort of) and threatened to free her 20 lions, 8 tigers and 10 elephants and let them roam the city.

In 1992 her 72 feet long camper was finished. Cinema was a side project in her life, but she used it to publicize her circus. She made her debut at seventeen, in 1959, in Duilio Coletti’s Under Ten Flags, where she is a victim of the Atlantis’ shipwreck. She remembered that it was the director who picked her after having seen her walking in the streets, but it was Dino De Laurentiis, the producer, to give her the stage name of Moira and her typical hairdo.

Even a famous peplum director, Antonio Leonviola, worked very much on her look. In the mythological cinema filled wit Herculeses and Samsons, in fact, Moira became a star as the mean queen thanks to her majestic body and her heavy make up. We’ve seen her alongside Steve Reeves in Pietro Francisci’s Hercules, in Carlo Campolliagani’s Ursus, as Nemea in C.L. Bragaglia’s The Loves of Hercules, as Ula in Goliath, as Poppea in Fire Over Rome, as Dalila in Samson and His Mighty Challenge.

Her favorite roles, however, did not belong to the Sword and Sandal genre. She deems her part in Pietro Germi’s The Birds, the Bees and the Italians as her best one. She is also very funny in Dino Risi’s Torture Me but Kill Me with Kisses, where she plays the widow Adelaide, and in his Scent of a Woman, where she is a prostitute. Moira used to tell that this last film made her fight with Risi because she didn’t want to take her clothes off. And Risi himself wasn’t able to change her mind.