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  Oleg Yankovsky

Born:   23 February 1944
Deceased:   20 May 2009

One of the most illustrious and favourite Soviet and Russian actors


Oleg Yankovsky was born on 23 February 1944 in the town of Dzhekazgan, Republic of Kazakhstan, and spent his childhood there. His father Ivan Pavlovich, descending from Polish noblemen, a former staff captain of Life Guards of the Semyonovsky Regiment, was arrested in the course of Stalinist purges in the Red Army following Tukhachevsky’s case and exiled with his family to Kazakhstan, where he died in a gulag camp.

The once well-off family lived a very poor life in the God-forsaken town. The Yankovskys, nevertheless, had a rich library, spoke foreign languages and read a lot.

After Stalin’s death the Yankovskys managed to move from the Middle Asia to Saratov, a Russian town with rich cultural roots, a town of theatre-lovers. The mother fostered love for theatre and stage in her children. The elder of Oleg’s brothers, Rostislav, finished Saratov Theater School and left for Minsk, taking the 14-year old Oleg with him, to relieve the family from at least part of its financial troubles. In Minsk Oleg Yankovsky made his debut on stage by replacing a sick girl playing a boy’s role in the play Drummer Girl.

After finishing secondary school Yankovsky returned to Saratov to study in the Saratov Theater School. After graduation in 1965 he got engaged in the company of the Saratov Drama Theatre together with his wife, the talented actress Lyudmila Zorina. It was not before his film popularity that he was taken notice of in the theatre and got a chance of playing serious leading roles.

The film debut of Oleg Yankovsky occurred by chance: he was noticed in a restaurant during the theatre’s tour in Lvov by the film director Vladimir Basov, who was looking for “a typical Arian youth” for his The Shield and the Sword (Shchit i mech) (1968). In the same year he played a young Red Army volunteer in Yevgeni Karelov’s drama film Two Comrades Were Serving (Sluzhili dva tovarishcha) (1968). ‘There we had a wonderful company. Rolan Bykov can hardly be compared to anybody. There was something of a mentor about him. He started to take care of me at once. He liked to drink and was easily carried away; he would take me to the restaurant and tell, tell and tell stories. Like a thirsty sponge I was absorbing everything he told me. On the other hand there was Vladimir Vysotsky. They were the true universities. No educational institutions compare to them” – Oleg Ivanovich told about that work.

After the release of The Shield and the Sword and Two Comrades Were Serving Oleg Yankovsky became famous at once. In addition to that he came to get big roles in the Saratov theatre. In those years O.Yankovsky played a number of serious roles, both in classical (Talents and Admirers, A Glass of Water) and modern (An Outside Man) repertoire. His biggest success there was the role of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.

In 1973 Oleg Yankovsky was invited to the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow and soon became its leading actor. His best roles included those in the plays Autocity-XXI, Lad from Our Town, Revolutionary Etude, Dictatorship of Consciousness, Optimistic tragedy, The Seagull, The Barbarian and Heretic, and Hamlet. One of the most remarkable roles of O.Yankovsky in the mid 1970s was the Father in Andrei Tarkovsky’s biographical feature film The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1975). He also got that role by chance, when noticed by Tarkovsky’s assistant as resembling the director’s father Arseny Tarkovsky. In 1983 Andrei Tarkovsky invited O.Yankovsky to play the Writer Gorchakov in the internationally renowned drama Nostalgia.

In the 1970s O.Yankovsky was very much into filming. His plasticity as an actor enabled him to look organically in different film roles, such as that of a party functionary in The Bonus (Premiya) (1974) and Wrong Connection (Obratnaya svyaz) (1977)), the Decembrist Kondratyi Ryleyev in The Star of Fascinating Happiness (Zvezda plenitelnogo schastya) (1975), an unsettled, caustic man in Other People's Letters (Chuzhie pisma) (1975) and A Sweet Woman (Sladkaya zhenshchina) (1976)), or, on the contrary, a weak-willed, spineless person in Speech for the Defence (Slovo dlia zashchity) (1976) and The Turning Point (Povorot) (1979).

O.Yankovsky as a film actor really flourished in the 1980s, the years that were ‘blessed’ with the film director Mark Zakharov: An Ordinary Miracle (Obyknovennoye chudo) (1978), The Very Same Munchhausen (Tot samyy Myunkhgauzen) (1979), The House That Swift Built (Dom, kotoryy postroil Svift) (1983), To Kill a Dragon (Ubit drakona) (1988).

Apart from Zakharov’s film remarkable are Yankovsky’s splendid roles in Roman Balayan’s films, such as Flights in Dreams and in Reality (Polyoty vo sne i nayavu) (1982), The Kiss (Potseluy) (1983), Guard Me, My Talisman (Khrani menya, moy talisman) (1986), and The Spy (Filyor) (1987), as well as the eccentric social drama We, the Undersigned (My, nizhepodpisavshiyesya) (1981) by director Tatyana Lioznova and the melodrama In Love at One’s Own Will (Vlyublyon po sobstvennomu zhelaniyu) (1983) by Sergei Mikaelyan.

In the early 1990s Oleg Yankovsky also played quite different roles in Georgi Daneliya’s tragic comedy The Passport (1990) and in Karen Shakhnazarov’s historical and psychological drama The Assassin of the Tsar (Tsareubiytsa) (1991).

This is how O.Yankovsky recalled “the new era” of Perestroika: “Everyone would undertake making movies. Since they thought about whitewashing money rather than creating, very soon the number of released films in Russia went up to 400 a year. When those new “cinematographers” invaded everything, forcing true professionals out, I stopped acting in films on principal. I realized one could not deal with one’s own destiny in such a way. I have never been interested in decorative presence on screen. If you are going to play, then play in the big way! I am poisoned with good cinema, so I could not agree on junk. Invited by Claude Regy I went to Paris for half a year and took part in an international theatre project, working very hard. By the way, the last echo of the collapsed Soviet Union reached France as well. In Paris I learnt that I was given the title of the People’s Artist of the USSR. It had happened a week before the country with such a name drew its last breath. The first People’s Artist in the 1920s was Konstantin Sergeevitch Stanislavski, and I turned to be the last one… At the celebration of the 100th anniversary of MKhAT I even ventured a joke on this: “Look, comrades, who we started with and who we finish with!” The audience laughed long”.

In the following years O.Yankovsky was rarely into filming. There were interesting roles in the films Fatal Eggs (Rokovye yaytsa) (1996), The First Love (Pervaya lyubov) (1995), and Inspector (Revizor) (1996). Yet the actor confessed he had “no satisfaction with any of the last works”.

In 2000 O.Yankovsky made his first film Come Look at Me (Prikhodi na menya posmotret) as a director and played one of the leads in it. Two years later he played in Valeriy Todorovskiy’s drama The Lover (Lyubovnik). One of the last films featuring him was V.Todorovskiy’s musical Hipsters (Stilyagi) (2008).

The outstanding actor’s last work was in Pavel Lungin’s historical feature Tsar, which was demonstrated at the Cannes Film Festival on the 17th of May 2009, just three days before his death. Yankovsky played the sophisticated role of Metropolitan Philipp in his last film.

The actor died of cancer, aged 65, on May 20, 2009 in Moscow and was laid to rest at the Novodevichy Cemetery.


Tags: Russian cinema Russian actors Oleg Yankovsky   

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