Film, stage vet often portrayed Soviet leaders

Russian theater and film actor Mikhail Ulyanov died in Moscow March 26 after a long illness. He was 79.

Ulyanov was born in the remote Omsk region in Siberia, where he learnt his acting craft from actors evacuated there during WWII. That experience sent him in the post-War years to a Moscow theater school, and in 1950 he was accepted into the company of the Soviet capital’s Vakhtangov Theater, a leading classically-oriented theater, where he would remain until the end of his life, from 1987 onwards as that venue’s chief artistic director.

Ulyanov proved a unifying figure in a troubled time, taking on the perestroika mantle of head of the Soviet (later Russian) Theater Union. He carried it through a difficult decade in which mass closures of theaters were a real risk, given changing economic circumstances.

Ulyanov was one of the few Soviet actors entrusted to portray screen and stage roles of the country’s Communist Party leaders. His most frequent appearance was as WWII Soviet military leader Marshal Georgy Zhukov (which he reprised 12 times). He portrayed Vladimir Lenin, a role that had to be specially approved, at least six times. Perhaps his best known screen role was as the progressive collective farm boss in the 1963 pic “The Chairman,” though other appearances won international recognition as well.

His repertoire included Stalin, Kirov and even Napoleon, and he played two major Dostoevsky heroes, Mitya Karamazov in “The Brothers Karamazov” for film director Ivan Pyryev, and Rogozhkin in “The Idiot.”

On stage, he was more independent, excelling in both Russian classics like Ostrovsky, as well as turning in a landmark role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and as Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Ulyanov’s final major screen role was as a disgruntled and vengeful grandfather in Stanislav Govorukhin’s 1999 film “The Voroshilov Sharp-Shooter,” screened at the Berlin festival a year later. His portrayal of a Soviet war veteran disgusted by the values of the newly-emerging generation, and in particular at the rape of his granddaughter, caught an emotional resonance that typified the generation for whom the actor had earlier been an icon.

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