Papas was born as Irini Lelekou (Ειρήνη Λελέκου) in the village of Chiliomodi, outside Corinth, Greece. Her mother, Eleni, was a schoolteacher, and her father, Stavros, taught classical drama.[a] She was educated at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens, taking classes in dance and singing.
In 1947 she married the film director Alkis Papas; they divorced in 1951.
In 1954 she met the actor Marlon Brando and they had a long and "secret love affair".
She married the film producer Jose Kohn in 1957; that marriage was later annulled.
In 2003 she was serving on the board of directors of the Anna-Marie Foundation. In 2018 it was announced that she had been suffering from Alzheimer's for five years.
The Treccani Enciclopedia Italiana describes Papas as a typical Mediterranean beauty, with a lovely voice both in singing and acting, greatly talented and with an adventurous spirit.
In the view of film critic Philip Kemp, Papas was an awe-inspiring presence, which paradoxically limited her career. He admired her roles in the films of Michael Cacoyannis, including the defiant Helen of Troy in The Trojan Women; the vengeful, grief-stricken Clytemnestra in Iphigenia; and "memorably" as the cool but sensual widow in Zorba the Greek.
The film critic Roger Ebert observed that there were many "pretty girls" in cinema "but not many women", and called Papas a great actress. Ebert noted her uphill struggle, her height limiting the leading men she could play alongside, her accent limiting the roles she could take, and "her unusual beauty is not the sort that superstar actresses like to compete with." Ordinary actors, he suggested, had trouble sharing the screen with Papas. All the same, her presence in many well-known movies, wrote Ebert, inspired "something of a cult".
Papas began her acting career in variety and traditional theatre, in plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, and classical Greek tragedy, before moving into film in 1951.
Later in her career, she took the eponymous role of Medea in a 1973 production of Euripides's play. Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Clive Barnes described her as a "very fine, controlled Medea", smouldering with a "carefully dampened passion", constantly fierce. Walter Kerr also praised Papas's Medea; both Barnes and Kerr saw in her portrayal what Barnes called "her unrelenting determination and unwavering desire for justice". Albert Bermel considered Papas's rendering of Medea as a sympathetic woman a triumph of acting.
In 1972, she appeared on the album 666 by the Greek rock group Aphrodite's Child on the track "∞" (infinity). She chants "I was, I am, I am to come" repeatedly and wildly over a percussive backing, causing controversy with her "graphic orgasm".
In 1979, Polydor released her solo album of eight Greek folk songs entitled Odes, with electronic music performed (and partly composed) by Vangelis Papathanassiou. The lyrics were co-written by Arianna Stassinopoulos. They collaborated again in 1986 for Rapsodies, an electronic rendition of seven Byzantine liturgy hymns, also on Polydor.
^The date is printed as 1926 in the Enciclopedia Italiana, presumably a typo for 1929: "PAPAS, Irene, nata Lelekou". Enciclopedia Italiana - V Appendice (1994). Retrieved 27 August 2018.
^Profile, filmreference.com; accessed 30 April 2015.
^"Aktorja legjendare greke: Jam shqiptare ose gjysmëshqiptare" [The legendary Greek actress: I am Albanian or half Albanian] (in Albanian). Telegrafi. 5 December 2016. Irene Papas, the famous Greek actress who played alongside Bekim Fehmiu in the television series "Odyssey", said in an interview that she may be from Albania. .. Asked why it is so bizarre, as the newspaper Tema reports, the 90-year-old actress replied: "I look like my mother. My mother was silvery like me. She came from Epirus, while my father probably came from Albania. Maybe I am Albanian, or half Albanian. Peloponnese is full of Albanians."
^Dome, Malcolm (27 January 2015). "Malcolm Dome looks back on the impact of Aphrodite's Child's mythic prog masterpiece". Retrieved 27 February 2017. The band's label, Mercury, were certainly left bemused. In fact, they were so horrified by the scope and challenge of the double album that they initially refused to release it. In particular, Papas' graphic orgasm during Infinity struck the wrong chord with them. Eventually, the company relented and agreed to put it out on their Vertigo imprint.
^"Irene Papas Leone d' oro alla carriera". La Repubblica (in Italian). 20 February 2009. Retrieved 6 March 2018. Noi italiani la ricordiamo ancora come la bella Penelope dell' Odissea tv (anno 1969): Irene Papas la grande attrice greca, riceve alle 18 il Leone d' oro alla carriera del Festival Internazionale del Teatro della Biennale di Venezia diretto da Maurizio Scaparro dedicato al Mediterraneo che si apre oggi. L' attrice interpreterà "Medea", nell' originale di Euripide e nella riscrittura di Corrado Alvaro.