Tura Satana – An American Icon

Tura Satana in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Real bad girls who are beautiful as well as dangerous, are hard to come by. There are plenty of attractive and talented actresses who “play” action heroines in the movies but few seem like they can really hold their own off the set. They use stunt doubles for their action scenes and special effects to cover up their lack of real fighting skills. Some come from conventional or even privileged backgrounds and unless they’ve been directed to hold a weapon, they’ve never had to learn how to shoot a gun or wield a knife. Tura Satana is the real deal.

Gang member, martial artist, burlesque dancer, actress, stunt woman, nurse, police radio operator, bodyguard, wife and mother. Tura Satana has been all of that and more in her lifetime. She also managed to survive the Japanese internment camps, a horrible rape, reform school, a nasty gunshot in the stomach and a terrible car wreck that left her hospitalized for years. She’s an original American bad girl and a real Action Heroine in and out of the movies. And that’s why I decided to celebrate her work in film for the Action Heroine Blog-a-thon.

Tura Satana entered the public eye as an exotic burlesque dancer in the late fifties. She used her athletic abilities and even her martial art skills in her burlesque act, which included elaborate costumes consisting of kimonos, huge head dresses, beaded g-strings and garters. She also used lots of props in her performances such as knives, swords and a large Buddha statue. Her show was very popular and attracted a lot of attention.

After being photographed by silent film star Harold Lloyd, who encouraged her to get into acting, Tura considered a career in Hollywood but didn’t really pursue it. That all changed after a producer caught her show while she was performing at the Follies Theater in Los Angeles and offered her a part as a sexy secretary in the Hawaiian Eye television series. She would later go on to appear in other television shows such as Burke’s Law, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Tura’s first film role was in Danny Mann’s comedy Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed? where she got to dance for Dean Martin. That same year director Billy Wilder and writer/producer I.A.L. Diamond visited the Pink Pussycat Nightclub in Hollywood with their wives where Tura Satana was performing. They were all impressed with Tura’s risqué act and Billy Wilder’s wife suggested that Tura might make the perfect Suzette Wong in Wilder and Diamond’s 1963 film, Irma La Douce. Wilder agreed and she got the part of the prostitute Suzette Wong in his film.

It’s been rumored that Tura Satana had an affair with Billy Wilder during the making of Irma La Douce and if it’s true I wouldn’t be surprised. Tura is incredibly beautiful and she has had a lot of famous lovers in her lifetime including Elvis Presley, Joe DiMaggio and actor Rod Taylor. Hopefully her upcoming biography will offer more insight into her romantic relationships, as well as her fascinating life.

Billy Wilder examines Tura’s costume in Irma La Douce (1963)

In 1965 Tura Satana got the role of a lifetime in Russ Meyer’s classic film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The movie would make her a cult icon and cement her place in cinema history forever. She was dancing at a supper club called The Losers with fellow Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Haji, when Haji introduced her to Russ Meyers. Meyer’s was impressed with Tura’s beauty and naturally large bust so he cast her in his upcoming film. Tura would become a little too hot for Meyer too handle but together the two would make film history.

In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Tura plays Varla, a go-go dancer gone bad who beats up men and terrorizes other women. Audiences shouldn’t underestimate Tara’s contribution to the film. She created her character’s look and performs all of her own stunts in the movie. She also wrote a lot of her own dialogue and some of the action scenes.

The part of Varla came naturally to Tura who had grown up in Japanese internment camps during WW2 and learned to fight on the rough streets of Chicago after the war. When she was horribly raped by a group of young men at the tender age of nine, Tura’s father taught her Karate so she could better protect herself in the future and she went on to learn Aikido as well. Tura spent her wild youth hanging out with Chicago girl gangs and enjoyed wearing leather motorcycle jackets, jeans, gloves and boots. During this time she also had to learn how to protect herself with razor blades and switchblades. She was a good student and a great athlete but she seemed to have a hard time focusing on her studies and eventually Tura ended up in reform school due to her bad behavior. By age 15 she had had enough of school and left to become a professional burlesque dancer.

Tura has dished out her own brand of real vigilante justice over the years to men and women who have dared to cross her path over the years. She had a reputation during her burlesque days for fighting with other dancers and she didn’t suffer fools lightly during her live performances. After she was raped as a young girl Tura vowed revenge on her attackers and she has said that she eventually tracked down all of her rapists. In her own words, “I made a vow to myself that I would someday, somehow get even with all of them. They never knew who I was until I told them.”

Tura brought all of her own real world experience to the role of Varla as well as her rage. Tura was an angry woman during the making of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which led her to breaking her own hand during an argument with director Russ Meyer. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is now considered one of Russ Meyer’s greatest films and it’s impossible to measure the movie’s contribution to popular culture. The powerful and erotic image of Tura Satana beating a man to death in the desert in 1965 has now become eternally connected to female empowerment and the birth of the woman’s movement in the sixties.

Tura with her fellow Doll Squad members (1973)

After making Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Tura had a small part as a dancer in the spy spoof Our Man Flint (1966) and then she began working with exploitation director Ted V. Mikels. Tura’s first film with Mikels was the extremely low-budget sci-fi/horror film Astro-Zombies (1968). Astro-Zombies is not a great movie but some might say it’s a “so bad, it’s good” movie and Tura Satana’s performance as the evil spy Satana’s performance is well worth your time. She looks amazing in the film and wears some incredible low-cut sixties fashions while shooting cops and shoving burning cigarettes into the faces of her enemies.

In 1973 Tura appeared in Ted V. Mikels’ entertaining action-packed film The Doll Squad which is one of the best female action movies made in the seventies. The Doll Squad was the inspiration for the much tamer Charlie’s Angels television series and it tells the story of a group of elite female commandos that work for the U.S. government. In the movie, the “Doll Squad” led by Sabrina (Francine York) must come together to stop a mad man named Eamon O’Reilly (Michael Ansara) who plans to takeover the world by disbursing plague-infected rats throughout the population. The ass kicking Doll Squad girls use guerrilla warfare tactics, martial art skills and their seductive charms to put an end to Eamon O’Reilly’s evil plans. Tura plays Doll Squad member Lavella Sumara, but she is not used enough in the film even though she manages to steal every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately Tura’s film career seemed to come to an abrupt end after she was shot in the stomach by an angry ex-boyfriend with murder on his mind right after making The Doll Squad. She survived the shooting but Tura didn’t return to acting until some 30 years later in Ted V. Mikels’ follow-up to Astro-Zombies called Mark of the Astro Zombies (2002). Why the long delay? Following the shooting, Tura ended up in a terrible car accident which kept her hospitalized for years. She also spent a lot of her time focusing on her family and raising her kids.

Tura and Francine York in The Doll Squad (1973)

Tura also stopped performing as an erotic dancer in the seventies. She was a talented tassel twirler but she never performed completely topless (although she did take topless photos) and when the topless clubs started becoming regular adult entertainment in the late sixties she decided to stop dancing. Tura Satana was a sexy and exotic performer who didn’t need to get completely nude to entertain her audiences. The art of burlesque was also becoming a thing of the past so she turned her talents towards nursing and started working in Los Angeles hospitals.

It’s a real shame that Tura Satana didn’t make more films during the ’60s and ’70s. The handful of movies she did make clearly show that she had talent. Her beauty, as well as abilities as an action star, could have been used to great effect if other directors offered her more interesting roles. Tura didn’t get film roles in Modesty Blaise and the Matt Helm films because casting directors didn’t find her “feminine enough” and director Russ Meyer came to greatly regret not using her in more of his productions even though she refused to do nude scenes.

Tura Satana is now 69 or 72 years old (her exact birth date seems debatable) but she continues to act occasionally and is currently writing her biography, which she hopes to turn into a film. Tura occasionally makes special appearances at film revivals and conventions. This summer Tura Satana will be attending the Midnight Mass Anniversary Show with John Waters and Mink Stole in San Francisco and she’ll also be at the International Comic-Con in San Diego July 26-29.

For more information about the amazing Tura Satana please visit her official website:
The Only Official Site of Tura Satana

17 thoughts on “Tura Satana – An American Icon

  1. I discovered your blog about a month ago, by following the links from the “Tomb It May Concern” blog, and I just want to say that I really enjoy it.
    I’ve been really into Euro (mostly Italian) Action/Spy/Horror films from the 60’s/70’s lately, and you’ve turned me on to some great stuff.

    As for Tura Satana, I’ve always like Faster Pussycat, but I’ve never seen her other work.
    The Doll Squad seems right up my alley.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the comment Rodney! I’m really happy to hear that you’ve enjoyed a lot of my film suggestions. I hope you’ll give The Doll Squad a look and let me know what you think of it. It’s really a fun movie, but also super low-budget. Thanks again for the feedback!

  3. Wow! What a fantastic post! Thanks for finding me so that I could find you back. Wouldn’t have missed this post for the world. Tura was totally unknown to me – until now. Fascinating woman. Would love to read her book. Irma la Duce is an old favorite – may be time to re-watch it soon and look for Tura . . .

    So much info & a very good analysis – thanks!

  4. Thanks so much Anna! I’m happy I could introduce someone to Tura Satana. She’s an amazing woman who’s had an incredible life and I’m really looking forward to her upcoming biography. I hope it’s finished soon. Thanks again!

  5. Are you a Midnight Mass attendee, cinebeats? I’m excited to see that Satana is going to make an in-person appearance this year, but as much as I love Desperate Living (my favorite John Waters film), I’m a little disappointed that Peaches Christ isn’t going to be screening one of Satana’s films this time around. The first one I ever saw was the Doll Squad at a Midnight Mass in 2001, the summer I attended practically every week. But I guess her filmography is short enough that there aren’t that many films to choose from (much less in decent prints), and Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! screened as recently as 2005 so it’s probably too soon for a reprise.

    Anyway, great article with great photos!

  6. Nice to meet you, Cinebeats. (Thanks to that crazy kid Nathaniel & his Action Heroine Blogathon.)

    Thanks, too, for providing such a wondrous introduction to Tura Satana, a performer I’ve long known next to nothing about…

  7. Wow, what a way to come back from Vegas Kimberly. Incredible post on an incredible lady. There was a lot here I didn’t know about her and it was such a fascinating read. I hate that she wasn’t able to make more films after Faster Pussycat as she is so unforgettable in that film. I really love The Doll Squad also and this post made me really want to revisit it.
    I can’t wait for her book to come out, it should be an incredible read.
    Thanks for coming back with such a great post…

  8. Hey Kimberly! This was a great blog post to get you back in the groove since your Vegas trip. Wow! Tura Satana is so awesome. I loved her in “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.” Russ Meyer rocks. I’ve seen her in a few other things, but this blog taught me a lot about her I never knew. I always learn something new on Cinebeats. Thanks. She’s definitely lived a life of adventure. It’s a shame that she also was hit by so much tragedy. I wish she could have had a brighter career. Glad to see you are home from Vegas safe and sound.

  9. Thanks so much for all the nice comments!

    Brian – Glad you enjoyed my long-winded piece on Tura. I’m sad to say that I haven’t had the chance to catch any of the Midnight Mass shows yet, but they sound fantastic! Female Trouble is my own favorite John Water’s film and I noticed that it will be showing when Water’s is there for a Q&A and meet and greet session.

    StinkyLulu – Thanks for stopping by my blog. I really enjoyed discovering your own blog thanks to the Action Heroine blog-a-thon. I hope you’ll give some of Tura’s films a look soon. She’s a fascinating lady!

    Jeremy – I’m glad you were able to discover a few new things about Tura thanks to my post. It’s sort of a collection of all the information I’ve managed to gather about her from all the interviews I’ve read, but I hope she publishes her own bio soon! I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will be an amazing read.

    Keith – I’m also glad you enjoyed my post and discovered a few new things about Tura as well. I know you’re a big Dino fan so I wanted to ask if you’ve ever seen the Dino film Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed? which features Tura as a dancer? That’s the one Tura Satana film I’ve never seen and I’d love to check it out someday. Maybe Jeremy has seen it too since I know he’s also a big dino fan as well?

    Dr Insermini – Thanks a lot! I’m glad we came across each other’s blogs during the blog-a-thon.

  10. Hey Kimberly! That’s one of the few Dino movies I’ve never seen. I’ve wanted to though. I really love a lot of his bedroom comedies. These 60’s sex comedies were always favorites of mine. I’ll have to see if I can find this one. Jeremy might have seen it since he’s also a Dino fan.

  11. I’m with Keith,
    “Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed” has proved most elusive and I have wanted to see it for years. I mainly have been curious to see Dean with Elizabeth Montgomery but now that I know that Tura is in it also it has become a must track down.
    I’ll let know if I can ever score a copy…

  12. Great post!

    I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tura Satana a few years ago when FASTER, PUSSYCAT! played the local revival theatre here in Edmonton, Alberta. I talked to her for what must have been close to an hour, and she was sensational. She told a great story about going to see a screening of PUSSYCAT. There was a guy sitting behind her who kept making all these snarky comments about her–“She’s not so tough!” “I could take that dame, easy!” and that kind of thing. Finally, Tura just turned around and said, “Oh yeah? Well, let’s see you do it, then!” The guy just about wet himself.

    I also vividly remember her talking about how guys were always hitting on her when she was an actress and in burlesque and how she finally got marriage to a police officer. “So what does it take for a man to impress Tura Satana?” I asked, and she replied, “A lot.” So cool!

    Great blog! Keep up the fantastic work!

  13. Glad you enjoyed my post Paul and thanks so much for sharing your terrific story about meeting Tura. I really enjoyed reading it. I can’t believe someone had the nerve to treat her like that, but it must have been interesting to be there and witness it all.

    Thanks again!

  14. They truly don’t make ’em like Tura anymore.

    Great blog! You can thank Stacie Ponder (of Final Girl fame) for turning me on to it…

  15. You mention that Tura was photographed by Harold Lloyd, but neglect to state that she was photographed in the nude! And in 3-D!
    I don’t think she ever posed nude, but accomodated Harold Lloyd. The 3-D part is just gravy.

  16. Dear Kimberly,
    This is one of the best articles I’ve read about Tura Bravura (my nickname for this raven-haired diva) and I’ve had to plough through quite a few when researching my articles for the Dutch & English Wikipedia. Tura has her own MySpace site these days, and is the most delightful correspondent you could imagine. If Mae West were still alive, she’d be rolling in the aisle after reading Tura’s amusing stories and anecdotes. So long may Tura Satana run, dance, and kick against shins that deserve her special treatment! Cheers for now and keep up the good work.

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