Vyacheslav Tikhonov: Actor best known for playing Soviet spies in a career spanning 60 years

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Over a 60-year career as an actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov played heroic and aristocratic roles, but he was best loved for playing spies. The highlight was the cult television series about the last days of the Second World War, Seventeen Moments of Spring (1973). In the 14-hour television series, he played Max Otto von Stirlitz, a high-ranking German officer who is actually a Soviet spy. Tikhonov brought to the role a quiet authority, which, with his good looks, and fine light tenor voice (several films gave him the opportunity to sing), turned him into something of a sex symbol.

Tikhonov was born in Pavlovsky Posad, near Moscow. His mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father an engineer in the local textile factory. Vyacheslav dreamed of acting but his parents envisaged a different career and during the war he worked in a munitions factory. In 1945 he squeezed into the state film school at his second attempt. In 1948, the students got their unexpected screen debuts when it was decided to film a staging of Fadeyev's novel Molodaya Gvardiya ("The Young Guard"), about wartime partisans in Krasnodon. Tikhonov had a role and in the same year married fellow student Nonna Mordyukova.

But Tikhonov was overlooked for a Stalin prize and Mosfilm's studio head did not like him, so for the next few years he appeared in relatively low-profile films and at the Film Actors' Studio Theatre in Smolensk. One of his notable roles there was the bear in Erast Garin's staging of Yevgeni Schwartz's fairy-tale An Ordinary Miracle.

Joining the Gorky Studio in 1957 Tikhonov's film career began to improve, especially when under the direction of Stanislav Rostotsky. The rural family drama Delo bylo v Penkove ("It Happened in Penkovo", 1958) offered one of his better roles and was followed by several wartime dramas: Maiskie Zyvozdy ("May Stars", 1959), set in Prague, and Na Semi Vetrakh ("On the Seven Winds", 1962), on the Western front. In Yevgeny Tashkov's Zhazhda ("Thirst", 1959), based on real events, Tikhonov, in the first of his spy roles, is a scout in an operation to free an Odessa water plant from the Nazis.

But it was not all war. In Dve Zhizni ("Two Lives", 1961) Tikhonov plays the less fortunate of two men who unwittingly meet in France, 40-odd years after fighting on opposite sides of the 1917 revolution. Rostotsky's Dozhivyom do Ponedelnika ("Live Till Monday" 1968), in which a teacher plans to defend a student at a disciplinary meeting, won him a state prize. In 1979 Rostotsky made a documentary about his friend, called "Profession: film actor".

Much of the late 1960s was taken up with the epic film version of War and Peace directed by his "Young Guard" co-star Sergei Bondarchuk, with Tikhonov playing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky opposite Bondarchuk's Bezukhov. But he only got the role at the suggestion of the Minister of Culture when Innokenty Smoktunovsky opted for Kozintsev's Hamlet and Oleg Strizhenov was also unavailable.

In 1973 Tikhonov had his "revenge" when director Tatiana Lioznova chose him over Smoktunovsky to star in an adaptation of Yulian Semyonov's novel Seventeen Moments of Spring. But, though several of Semyonov's Stirlitz novels were adapted for the screen, Tikhonov did not return, perhaps feeling that the original series had been definitive. It certainly proved immensely popular; it was recently colourised and released on DVD though it had also been shortened in the process. The role won him the title People's Artist of the USSR, one of a number of awards. Nevertheless the production had had to be approved by the Politburo and initially, some had doubts.

In 1976 he rejoined Bondarchuk in an adaptation of Sholokhov's They Fought for Their Country. It suited Tikhonov by concentrating on character rather than histrionics and won him another state prize in the year that he finally joined the Communist Party. 1977 saw a change of pace with Rostotsky's Oscar-nominated Beliy Bim Chernoe Ukho ("White Bim the Black Ear"), in which Tikhonov played a middle-aged writer who is "adopted" by a non-pedigree setter puppy.

Though he was often typecast as militiamen or spies, there were good roles among them, such as the KGB general in the cold-war thriller TASS upolnomochen zayavit ("Tass is authorised to announce", 1984), another television series based on a Semyonov novel.

In later years he was able to display a wider range, including the bishop in Besy, a film version of Dostoyevsky's The Devils (1992) and Charlemagne, the in Ubit Drakona, ("Kill the Dragon", 1998) after Yevgeny Schwartz's wartime satire. Schwartz was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, and Tikhonov appeared in Eldar Ryzanov's fantasy-biography of the Danish fabulist, Andersen: Life Without Love (2006), playing God.

Tikhonov appeared in Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning Burnt By the Sun (1994) and next year will be seen in the sequel that is currently being completed.

John Riley

Vyacheslav Vasilyevich Tikhonov, actor: born Pavlovsky Posad, Russia 8 February 1928; married 1948 Nonna Mordyukova (divorced 1963; one son deceased), secondly Tamara (one daughter); died Moscow 4 December 2009.