Born in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, Martinelli moved to Rome in the early 1950’s and started a career as a model, after her beautiful slim physique was noticed by fashion designer Roberto Capucci. She soon appeared in “Vogue” and “Life,” which is where she was noticed by Kirk Douglas’ wife Anne Buydens.
Martinelli in 1954 made her acting debut in Stendhal adaptation “Le Rouge et le Noir,” directed by France’s Claude Autant-Lara.
Her breakout role came the following year in Andre de Toth’s “The Indian Fighter, which Douglas produced.
“Sex in the person of Elsa Martinelli, Italian actress introduced here, and the relationship of her Indian maid character with Douglas