His roles were epoch-making. Yet, whether he played Napoleon or Hamlet, Alceste in Molière's Misanthrope, or Woland in the television adaptation of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Gustaw Holoubek invariably remained himself.
The actor who became the living symbol of Polish theatre was born in Kraków, where his father, a Czech, had settled after the First World War. In 1939, aged 16, he fought in the September Campaign. Then – after a spell in a Nazi concentration camp – he joined a clandestine theatre group and entered the Kraków Dramatic Studio. He made his stage début in Stefan Flukowski's Odysseus Among the Phaecians; his first film role was in Wanda Jakubowska's hard-line revolutionary Soldier of Victory (1953).
Holoubek's first Warsaw appearance was in Ugo Betti's Corruption in the Palace of Justice (1958). His stage roles served to articulate his views on ethics and aesthetics; he could impart the inexpressible and mesmerise with silence.
When he played Gustaw-Konrad in Kazimierz Dejmek's staging of Forefathers' Eve, Adam Mickiewicz's great national romantic drama, in 1967, performance went beyond art, and made political history. The show was seen to be anti-government and anti-Russian, and its suppression triggered student demonstrations and numerous arrests, heralding the March events of 1968. He reprised the role 20 years later in the screen adaptation by Tadeusz Konwicki (Lawa, 1989).
Appointed director of the Dramatic Theatre in Warsaw (1971-82), and chairman of the Polish Actors' Union (1972-80), Holoubek entered politics when he was elected to the Polish parliament, the Sejm, in 1976. Renouncing his mandate in 1981 following martial law, he joined in the actors' boycott of state-run media. He performed in churches, and was often attacked in the Communist press. In 1989, he was elected to the Senate from the Solidarity list (until 1991), sat on President Lech Walesa's Council for Culture (1992-93), and was appointed professor at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw. Since 1997 he had been artistic director of the Ateneum theatre in Warsaw.
Holoubek clocked up more than 50 cinema and television roles in his time. He appeared in the cult films of Wojciech Has, playing Don Pedro Velasquez in The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), and Doctor Gotard in The Hour-Glass Sana torium (1973); and in the films of Tadeusz Konwicki: Salto (1967) and the bewilderingly oneiric How Far, How Near (1972).
Though he excelled in both fields, the stage was his natural habitat. The theatre, for Holoubek, was "a magic place", the realm of poetry and artistry, where reality was transformed, existential dilemmas played out, and the human condition laid bare.
Gustaw Holoubek , actor: born Kraków, Poland 21 April 1923; married first Danuta Kwiatkowska (one daughter), second Maria Wachowiak (one daughter), third 1973 Magdalena Zawadzka (one son); died Warsaw 6 March 2008.