Linda Cristal, who has died aged 89, starred in all 97 episodes of the popular American TV western series The High Chaparral as the fiery Victoria Cannon, Mexican wife of the rancher “Big John”.
In her 2019 memoir, A Life Unexpected, she recalled reading about plans for the programme in a trade magazine, then barging into a meeting of the producers and its creator, David Dortort, to audition for the role. Discarding the script she was given – which she regarded as bland – Cristal improvised in order to portray the character as strong and tempestuous, “a heroine with fire and spunk”, as she described it.
That was enough to win her the role as the aristocratic Mexican rancher’s daughter who marries John (played by Leif Erickson) following the death of his first wife in the opening episode. The mixed marriage was groundbreaking for television in the 1960s, alongside stories of the Cannons’ attempts to live in harmony with Apaches near their ranch in the Arizona desert and bandits from across the Mexican border. The series ran from 1967 to 1971 and won Cristal a Golden Globe award as best TV actress.
Cristal was born Marta Victoria Moya in Buenos Aires, to a French mother, Rosario (nee Peggo), and an Italian father, Antonio Moya Burges, a magazine publisher. When she was five, her father came into conflict with the local mafia, so the family fled to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, where they lived in poverty in a tenement.
Later, following her parents’ deaths, Marta headed for Mexico, where her ambition to act led her to the producer Miguel Alemán. He launched her screen career with the role of a schoolgirl in Cuando Levanta la Niebla (When the Fog Lifts, 1952) and another producer, Raul de Anda, gave her the professional name Linda Cristal.
She appeared in half a dozen Mexican films, then heard that the Hollywood studio United Artists was planning to feature a Latina heroine alongside Dana Andrews in the western Comanche (1956) and successfully auditioned for the part.
The studio signed her to a contract and her roles included the Mexican ranch owner’s daughter who catches the eye of Jock Mahoney’s gunfighter in The Last of the Fast Guns (1958), a Cuban firebrand who marries a New York-based Puerto Rican criminal (John Saxon) in Cry Tough (1959) and the Argentinian pin-up accompanying Tony Curtis on a trip to Paris in the director Blake Edwards’s services comedy The Perfect Furlough (1958), a performance that won her a Golden Globe award as most promising newcomer.
Cristal appeared to get her biggest break when she starred as Cleopatra in the 1959 Italian-French-Spanish co-production Le Legioni di Cleopatra (The Legions of Cleopatra), but 20th Century-Fox bought the film and gave it only a limited release in advance of its own forthcoming 1963 epic Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor.
Consolation came with The Alamo (1960) and the role of a Mexican beauty who has a passing romance with John Wayne. Fulfilling his ambition to play the frontier legend Davy Crockett on screen, the star directed it himself. However, he hired the master of the western genre, John Ford, to direct second-unit sequences. After Cristal met him, he cast her in Two Rode Together (1961) as a Mexican – previously kidnapped by Comanches – whom James Stewart’s Texas marshal rescues from her warrior husband.
She switched to television for one-off appearances in series such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) before she made such an impact in The High Chaparral.
Then, after playing a Mexican migrant and union leader working for a melon farmer (Charles Bronson) in Mr Majestyk (1974), film parts dried up, but Cristal returned to TV with guest roles in Barnaby Jones (in 1979), The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (both in 1981).
Soap operas also kept her in work. Following parts as a gangster’s lover in El Chofer (1974) in Mexico and a widow with a blind son in Rossé (1985) in Argentina, she played a mobster’s girlfriend in the American daytime serial General Hospital during 1988. Then she retired to run an import-export business and invested in property.
Cristal’s 1950 marriage to the Argentinian actor Tito Gómez was annulled within weeks. Her second marriage, to the industrialist Robert Champion in 1958, ended in divorce the following year. In 1960 she married the actor Yale Wexler and they had two sons, Gregory and Jordan. They divorced in 1966, and her sons survive her.
• Linda Cristal (Marta Victoria Moya) actor, born 23 February 1931; died 27 June 2020