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 Igor Ilyinsky

Born:   24 July 1901
Deceased:   13 January 1987

famous Russian film and theatre actor


Igor Ilyinsky was born on 11(24) July, 1901 in Moscow. At the age of 16 he entered the Komissarzhevskaya Theatre Studio and in half a year already debuted on the professional stage in Kommisarzhevskaya Theatre. His first theatre role was that of Old Man in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Already then Igor Ilyinsky showed himself as a gifted comic actor.

In 1920 Igor Ilyinsky joined the Vsevolod Meyerhold Theatre. The young actor’s vividly notional acting style was in total correspondence with the principles of Meyerhold, and so Ilyinsky soon became the central actor of that theatre.

In the Meyerhold Theatre he worked for over ten years. It is interesting to note that for some time Ilyinsky was the only young actor, who Meyerhold respectfully called by his first and patronymic name - Igor Vladimirovich…

In the second half of the 1920s Igor Ilyinsky started to appear in movies, where he also played vivid comic characters. In 1924 Yakov Protazanov featured him in his famous futuristic film Aelita. It was followed by the first big success of the young actor - he starred in the eccentric comedy by Protazanov The Tailor from Torzhok. That role was created specifically for Igor Ilyinsky.

The next year of 1926 saw as many as three films with Ilyinsky. The viewers just fell in love with him! In the 1920s-1930s all movies featuring Ilyinsky became significant events and made great box-office receipts. The actor’s typical hero also changed: it was no longer just a comic character, but it grew into a social type.

“I can act on the roof of a train carriage, on the radiator of a moving car, on back of a galloping horse, or while swimming in the sea” – the actor wrote. He invented many of the gags and tricks himself. But cinema gave scope not only for acrobatic rolls and numerous gags. Close-up was the actor’s major tool: unforgettable face expressions that changed so quickly or just a raised eyebrow – the things already made it all funny! The actor’s talent was unfolding from unexpected side also: he did not only make viewers laugh at his character, but also sympathize with him.

However, all the characters played by Ilyinsky at that time were all very much alike – mainly philistines and swindlers. But the actor wanted more. The feeling of dissatisfaction so typical of great artists never left Ilyinsky. It made him suffer a crisis of creativity.

It is interesting that in those years Ilyinsky decisively diverted from comic character on theatre stage as well. Later he left the Meyerhold Theatre and had a five years break in film acting.

Only by the end of the 1930s he managed to overcome the crisis. In 1938 he joined the Maly Theatre that had been his favourite one since school years. Afterwards Ilyinsky stayed in the Maly Theatre for almost fifty years and even staged several plays there himself.

Later Igor Ilyinsky wrote that it was Russian classic literature that had helped him overcome the crisis and feeling that he had been unable to create new characters, different from the previous ones.

An outstandingly prolific period in the actor’s life was related to his work with the famous film director Grigori Aleksandrov. In 1938 Ilyinsky splendidly acted as Byvalov in the comedy Volga-Volga. He deliberately avoided any comic traits in his character to create a common image of a red tapist. The starting point for him was the gracious and stirring character of Lyubov Orlova. He decided to create a totally contrasting character, which he succeeded in.

That role brought Ilyinsky the State Prize and a new wave of people’s love. The film, probably, also rescued the actor from gulag camps, which lots of outstanding people risked at that time. Stalin watched the film sixteen times. At Molotov’s birthday party Stalin flung Ilyinsky a remark: “Ah, Byvalov! You are a bureaucrat and I am a bureaucrat. We shall understand each other”.

The success of that movie determined the development of soviet film comedy for several next decades. However, after the film Ilyinsky almost stopped his film acting. His only work of that period – a small role in the comedy Crime and Punishment after Mikhail Zoshchenko – never came to light.

During that difficult time Ilyinsky worked hard in the theatre and on radio. Besides, the actor showed himself as an extraordinary recite when performing in variety theatre.

In the mid 1950s Ilyinsky finally got a chance to act in a movie. It was a light comedy titled A Crazy Day. However, the character created by Ilyinsky was none but the repetition of what he had done 20 years back.

He managed to play a truly starry film role only 18 years after Volga-Volga. It was the role of the red tapist Ogurtsov in the smash-hit comedy Carnival Night directed by Eldar Ryazanov.

“I was not going to feature the great Igor Ilyinsky in Carnival Night - I felt timid, and understood that being a coryphaeus he would suppress me. When Pyriev offered him for the role of Ogurtsov, I just panicked: he was my idol from childhood, the famous actor of the Meierchold Theatre! And me, directing my first film, on the other scale!” - Eldar Ryazanov recalls.

For a long time in this country not a single New Year’s Eve could be celebrated without that sparkling musical comedy – it became a tradition to watch Carnival Night on TV with family or friends. That was the third wave of people’s love for Ilyinsky.

The master himself, though, did not like most of the comedies featuring him. In 1962 he again starred in Eldar Ryazanov’s musical film. In Hussar Ballad he played role quite contrary in style, and created an unforgettable portrayal of the outstanding commander Mikhail Kutuzov.

In Maly Theatre at the same time Ilyinsky shifted to portrayals of deeply tragic characters, in particular, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. In the late 1960s Ilyinsky went into stage directing. His first stage production was the stage version of Gustave Flaubert’s popular novel Madame Bovary.

The last period of Ilyinsky’s career was marked by his portrayals of Leo Tolstoy in the play Turning Full Circle and of Firs in The Cherry Ochard by Anton Chekhov. Theatre-goers still remember Ilyinsky’s acting in The Inspector General, where he played both Khlestakov and Gorodnichi in various years.

As a very old person Igor Ilyinsky acted a lot on the radio – almost blind, he was accompanied to the studio. As soon as he started his role, the weakness would vanish and a character would appear live.

Igor Ilyinsky died on 13 January 1987, on the Old New Year’s Eve, just while Carnival Night, one of his most famous works, was on air.

Tags: Russian cinema Russian actors    

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