INNOKENTI Smoktunovsky was a great actor, both on stage and in the cinema; he was a national figure in Russia and the former Soviet Union for the past 30 years and won an international reputation for his unforgettable performance in the title-role of Grigory Kozintsev's film version of Hamlet (1964).
Smoktunovsky was born the son of a worker in the tiny village of Tatianovka, in Tomsk Oblast, Siberia. He grew up in the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk. At the age of 17, he was mobilised into the army, and sent to the front straight from the infantry school in Kiev. It was 1943, and the Germans were being driven back towards the borders of the Soviet Union. Smoktunovksy was taken prisoner but escaped and joined a local partisan group with which he ended the war in Berlin.
For one year Smoktunovsky worked in Yenisei, the river port for Krasnoyarsk, while studying acting at the studio attached to the Pushkin theatre in Krasnoyarsk. He then performed in various theatres in the far north, including Norilsk, the coldest city in the world and capital of the Gulag empire of Soviet prison camps in the 1930s and post-war years. He worked all over the country from Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, to Moscow, and from 1957 to 1960 appeared at the Gorky Drama Bolshoi Theatre in Leningrad. He won initial celebrity for his performance in the role of Prince Myshkin in a production of The Idiot, after Dostoevsky.
At this point Smoktunovsky was discovered by the Russian film industry. He achieved a breakthrough in 1960, when he appeared opposite the great star Tatiana Samoilova in The Unposted Letter, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. It was a sensational film because of the remarkable photography of the celebrated cameraman Sergei Urusevsky. The following year he appeared in Nine Days in One Year, directed by Mikhail Romm, a fresh modern film about the relationship between a man and a woman, which was liked by both the critics and the public.
The film - whose production was made possible so soon after Stalin's death, and after a long period of stagnation in Russian films, because it coincided with Nikita Khrushchev's so-called 'thaw' - attracted large audiences to Moscow cinemas and sparked heated discussion in the Soviet press. Over the succeeding 30 years Smoktunovsky played in 80 feature and television films.
Shortly after the Russian release of Hamlet, Kozintsev, accompanied by Smoktunovsky, showed the film at the British Film Institute, in London, during a well-received season of Soviet films, and in 1965 it received the Lenin Prize. Smoktunovsky made two highly successful film appearances in 1970 - as Porfiri Petrovich in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, directed by Lev Kulidzhanov, and in the name part of Igor Talankin's Tchaikovsky. His partner in the latter was the prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who played Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's correspondent and patroness. The score was provided by Plisetskaya's composer husband Roman Shchedrin. Tchaikovsky was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the same year and received a prize.
Smoktunovsky played the title- role in the film Uncle Vanya (1971), directed by Andron Mikhalkov- Konchalovsky, and worked with Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky again in 1975 in A Lovers' Romance. But he never left the theatre. His most successful part was that of Tsar Fedor in the 1973 production of Tsar Fedor Ioannovich at the Maly Theatre, Moscow. From 1976 Smoktunovsky worked at MKHAT - the Moscow Art Theatre, the best theatre in the
Several books on Smoktunovsky have been published, in Russia, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In 1973 the actor- director Sergei Bondarchuk wrote a substantial article in the important monthly magazine Isskustvo Kino about filming on location and playing Doctor Astrov opposite Smoktunovsky in Uncle Vanya; the article was later republished as a small book.
In the 1970s and 1980s Smoktunovsky appeared frequently on television, often relating stories of how, in the years after the Second World War, he was turned down by virtually every theatre he approached for work because of his 'lack of talent'.