Emerging in the wake of Sophia Loren's international success, Claudia Cardinale was originally touted as Italy's answer to Brigitte Bardot; while never attaining a measure of global stardom comparable to either performer, she nevertheless proved herself a highly capable actress, working with many of the most renowned filmmakers in world cinema. Born in Tunisia on April 15, 1939, Cardinale first attracted attention in 1957 after winning the "Most Beautiful Girl in Tunisia" contest; her prize was a trip to the Venice Film Festival, inspiring her to pursue a career in acting. After studying at Rome's Centro Sperimentale film school, she made her screen debut in 1958's Goha, followed by a larger role in Mario Monicelli's classic caper comedy I Soliti Ignoti that same year. In 1959 she was featured in Pietro Germi's Un Maledetto Imbroglio.
Under the guidance of producer Franco Cristaldi (later to become her husband), Cardinale emerged as a major sex symbol; however, she also continued to appear with highly regarded filmmakers, including Abel Gance (The Battle of Austerlitz), Luchino Visconti (Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli), and Philippe de Broca (1962's Cartouche). In 1963, Cardinale received her widest exposure to date, playing herself -- the object of star Marcello Mastroianni's fantasies -- in Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2. That same year, she also appeared in Visconti's epic Il Gattopardo. Their combined success piqued Hollywood's interest, and in 1964 she co-starred in her first American production, Henry Hathaway's Circus World. She also appeared opposite Peter Sellers in Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther.
Cardinale continued dividing her time between Hollywood and Europe for the remainder of the decade, appearing in diverse projects ranging from the 1965 Visconti war drama Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa to the 1966 Richard Brooks Western The Professionals. In 1968, she also co-starred in the Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West. However, with the 1969 Mikhail Kalatozov adventure La Tenda Rossa, Cardinale began appearing almost exclusively in European films, few of which were distributed in English-language markets. As a result, she was largely a memory when she resurfaced in the 1976 hit The Pink Panther Strikes Again. A year later, she also co-starred in the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Cardinale's next high-profile international project was the 1982 Werner Herzog art-house hit Fitzcarraldo. She followed it with another miniseries, 1983's Princess Daisy, then again remained in Europe prior to the 1993 flop Son of the Pink Panther.