Israeli actress Haya Harareet, who became a star around the world in 1959 after portraying Esther, the hero’s love interest in the blockbuster masterpiece “Ben-Hur,” died Wednesday at her home in Buckinghamshire, England. She was 89.
Harareet was one of the first Israeli actors to break into Hollywood, but she couldn’t sustain her success and retired in the ‘60s. Her niece Tamar Tessler, who lives in Israel, said Harareet died overnight in her sleep. Her ashes will be scattered in Israel.
Harareet was born Haya Neuberg in Haifa in 1931 to Polish immigrants. She performed with the Navy Troupe during the War of Independence and started work as a director’s assistant at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater when she was 18. She eventually became an actress and performed in plays such as “Call Me Siomka,” “An Italian Straw Hat” and “The Queen of Sheba.”
In 1955, she was cast in the British-Israeli film “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” directed by Thorold Dickinson; the story’s three plot lines run through the War of Independence. “Hill 24,” at the time Israel’s most expensive cinematic production ever, competed at the Cannes Film Festival, where Harareet was awarded with a tribute for her performance.
In 1954, Harareet had played in another Israeli film, “Every Mile a Stone,” directed by Aryeh Lahola and including stars Yossi Yadin, Hanna Maron and Orna Porat. In 1956, Harareet moved to Rome, and a year later played in the “The Doll That Took the Town,” directed by Francesco Maselli.
She reached the next rung of her career with the help of American director William Wyler, whom she had met at Cannes in 1955. Wyler was launching work on “Ben-Hur,” a huge production even for Hollywood. The movie had the biggest budget ever up to that point, and the sets for some scenes were the largest ever. The film also made history at the Oscars: It won a record eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Charlton Heston), Best Director, and Best Cinematography.
Wyler cast Charlton Heston in the lead and insisted on casting the Israeli actress he had met at Cannes alongside him. MGM tracked down Harareet and invited her for an audition at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. After passing the screen test, she became the first Israeli actress signed to a four-year deal by a leading Hollywood studio.
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the original “Ben-Hur” was a blockbuster of legendary proportions, including scenes with thousands of extras and epic battle scenes. A team of 100 people worked on the costumes, while 200 people worked on the scenery. All told, the scenes included 200 camels, 2,500 horses and 10,000 extras. If you ever have the chance to see the remastered version of the original film on the big screen, make sure you have tickets. It is an unmatched cinematic experience.
“Ben-Hur” tells the tale of a scion of a wealthy Jewish family in Jerusalem dispossessed by the Romans. The movie became the second highest grossing film after “Gone with the Wind” and won 11 Oscars, including for best picture.
Harareet, who played Judah Ben-Hur’s love interest in the film, seemed to be at the start of a glittering Hollywood career, but despite her MGM contract she failed to retain her stardom. She appeared in a few more films but none reproduced a shred of the success of “Ben Hur.” Her credits include “The Secret Partner” (1961), “Journey Beneath the Desert” (1961) with Jean-Luis Trintignant, “The Interns” (1962), directed by David Swift, and “The Last Charge” (1962).
After appearing in two more Italian films, Harareet quit acting. She moved to England in the ‘60s to live with her second husband, the English director Jack Clayton, with whom she lived until his death in 1995. She co-wrote the screenplay for “Our Mother’s House,” which Clayton directed in 1967, and completed studies in political science in London.