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Melina Mercouri, 70, dead of cancer

Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress who gained fame in the film Never on Sunday and became a crusader for the arts as her nation's culture minister, died Sunday of complications from lung cancer.

Mercouri, about 70, died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where she had undergone surgery last week.

She helped found Greece's Socialist party and was the first woman ever to hold a senior Cabinet post in Greek government, which she used to fight for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The priceless marble statuary was removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Scottish antiquarian Thomas Bruce in the early 19th century. It remains in the British Museum.

Movie theaters across Greece closed on Sunday to mark Mercouri's death.

"Greece mourns the death of Melina, a woman who fought, a woman who was a great actress and fantastic person," Premier Andreas Papandreou said.

Papandreou, who had worked with Mercouri for decades, appointed her culture minister in October, when the Socialists returned to power after four years. Mercouri also held the post from 1981 to 1989.

Although she suffered from lung cancer and underwent surgery after being hospitalized in New York on Feb. 3, Mercouri had repeatedly ignored doctors' advice to stop smoking. She was smoking at her last public appearance at Athens airport on the day she left for New York.

Although she spent many years in politics, Mercouri's first love was acting. She became smitten after attending the theater for the first time at age 14. She sat through 16 consecutive performances of a popular French melodrama, L'Epervier (Sparrow-Hawk).

In 1960 she shot to international stardom as the warmhearted prostitute in Jules Dassin's award-winning Never on Sunday, one of the most successful films ever made in Greece. Dassin became her second husband.

Her resistance to the 1967 military junta led the colonels ruling Greece to strip her of her Greek nationality. She settled in Paris in 1967, but returned home when the military regime collapsed in 1974 and helped found Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement. She was elected to Parliament in 1977.

The Greek government said Mercouri's body would be flown back to Greece on Tuesday and lie in state at Athens Cathedral. A funeral will be held at the cathedral Thursday.

Mercouri is survived by Dassin.

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