Maila Nurmi (December 11, 1922 – January 10, 2008) was a Finnish-American actress born in Petsamo, Finland, who created the campy 1950s character Vampira. She portrayed Vampira as TV’s first horror host and in the Ed Wood cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. She is also billed as Vampira in the 1959 movie The Beat Generation where she plays a beatnik poet.
Born as Maila Elizabeth Niemi, she claimed to be the niece of the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, who began setting long-distance running world records in 1921, the year before her birth.
She moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old and grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, home to the largest Finnish-American community in the state. She and her family lived in Ashtabula until 1939, when they moved to Oregon.
She graduated from high school in Astoria, Oregon, before arriving in Los Angeles. She modeled for Alberto Vargas, Bernard of Hollywood, and Man Ray, gaining a foothold in the film industry with an uncredited role in Victor Saville’s 1947 film, If Winter Comes.
She reportedly was fired by Mae West from the cast of West’s Broadway play Catherine Was Great in 1944 because West feared that she was being upstaged. On Broadway, she gained much attention after appearing in the horror-themed midnight show Spook Scandals, in which she screamed, fainted, lay in a coffin and seductively lurked about a mock cemetery.
She also worked as a showgirl for the Earl Carroll Theatre and as a high-kicking chorus line dancer at the Florentine Gardens along with stripper Lili St. Cyr. In the 1950s she supported herself mainly by posing for pin-up photos in men’s magazines such as Famous Models, Gala and Glamorous Models. Before landing her role as ‘Vampira’, she was working as a hat-check girl in a cloakroom on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
In the early 1950s, Nurmi was close friends with James Dean, and they spent time together at Googie’s coffee shop on the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. She explained their friendship by saying, “We have the same neuroses.”
Dean allegedly repudiated their friendship toward the end of his brief life. As Hedda Hopper related in a 1962 memoir that included a chapter on Dean: “We discussed the thin-cheeked actress who calls herself Vampira on television (and cashed in, after Jimmy died, on the publicity she got from knowing him and claimed she could talk to him ‘through the veil’).
He said: ‘I had studied The Golden Bough and the Marquis de Sade, and I was interested in finding out if this girl was obsessed by a satanic force. She knew absolutely nothing. I found her void of any true interest except her Vampira make-up. She has no absolute.'”
The 2010 public radio documentary Vampira and Me by author/director R. H. Greene took issue with Hopper’s depiction of the Nurmi/Dean relationship, pointing to an extant photo of Dean and Vampira sidekick Jack Simmons in full Boris Karloff Frankenstein make-up as evidence of Nurmi and Dean’s friendship. The documentary also described a production memo in the Warner Bros. archive citing a set visit from “Vampira” while Dean was making Rebel Without a Cause. The Warner Bros.
memo was first mentioned in the 2006 book Live Fast, Die Young: The Making of Rebel Without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, who were given access to the Rebel production files. An interview Frascella and Weisel conducted with actress Shelley Winters also uncovered an instance where Dean interrupted an argument with director Nicholas Ray and Winters so he could watch The Vampira Show on TV.
In Vampira and Me, Nurmi can be heard telling Greene that Dean once appeared in a live bit on The Vampira Show in which Vampira, dressed as a librarian, rapped his knuckles with a ruler because “he was a very naughty boy.”
On June 20, 1955, Nurmi was the target of an attempted murder when a man forced his way into her apartment and proceeded to terrorize her for close to four hours. Nurmi eventually escaped and managed to call the police, with assistance from a local shop owner.
She married her first husband, Dean Riesner, in 1949, a former child actor in silent films and later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Play Misty for Me, and numerous other movies and TV episodes. She married her second husband, younger actor John Brinkley, on March 10, 1958. She married actor Fabrizio Mioni on June 20, 1961, in Orange County, California. She had no children.
On January 10, 2008, Nurmi died of natural causes at her home in Hollywood, aged 85. She was buried in the Griffith Lawn section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.