Although born and brought up in Sweden, Ekberg spent most of her adult life abroad, first in the United States, where she quickly emerged as one of a 1950's generation of pin-ups and starlets, and then in Italy, where she died in a hospital outside the capital on Sunday.
Ekberg had attracted attention while still a teenager, winning a beauty contest to become "Miss Sweden" in 1950.
The sixth of eight children, she was born on September 29, 1931 in the southern Swedish port of Malmö, where her father worked as a docker.
Both her mother and her friends had encouraged her to enter beauty contests, and her success quickly took her to the United States, with hopes of becoming Miss Universe.
Although she did not win, Ekberg was quickly noticed by, among others, the cult film director Russ Meyer, the eccentric millionaire businessman and producer Howard Hughes and the actor-producer John Wayne.
In addition to becoming a pin-up for magazines such as "Confidential" and "Playboy", she appeared in a series of comedy films including "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" (1953), "Artists and Models" (1955) and "Hollywood or Bust" (1956).
In each case Ekberg's spectacular physique was made part of the plot, often to comic effect.
When in 1954 she visited a US base in Greenland with the actor William Holden and the comedian Bob Hope, the latter quipped that her parents had been given the Nobel Prize for architecture.
It was for the director King Vidor that Ekberg first arrived in Italy, to act in his 1956 film of "War and Peace" along with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.
She was then noticed by the great Italian director Fellini, who always had an eye for beautiful women.
He cast her as the dream woman who tempts Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's iconic 1960 work "La Dolce Vita" (The Good Life).
The film won Fellini the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival of the same year, and the fountain scene rapidly became one of the most famous images in cinema history.
Ekberg was to star in several other major Italian films, including "Boccacio 70," (1962), co-directed by Fellini and Vittorio De Sica and also starring Sophia Loren, plus Fellini's circus film "I Clowns" (1970) and his "Intervista" (1987), also featuring Mastroianni.
In 2011 the Turin daily La Stampa reported that at the age of 80 the former star asked for financial help from the Fellini Foundation. She lived in a residence for elderly people near to Rome after breaking her hip.
Her many romantic liaisons reportedly included spells with Gianni Agnelli, head of the Fiat auto company, as well as with Mastroianni, Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra.
Ekberg was married twice, firstly to the British actor Anthony Steel between 1956 and 1959 and then to the American actor Rik Van Nutter between 1963 and 1975. Both marriages ended in divorce and there were no children.