OBITUARY:Alexander Godunov

Alexander Godunov was a dancer of handsome stature and blond good looks. He possessed a virtuoso technique and enjoyed a career of glamorous highlights in ballet and film; but his triumphs were short-lived.

From Igor Moiseyev's Young Dancers Company, to Bolshoi Ballet, to American Ballet Theatre, to Hollywood, he brought a glossy trail of spectacular appearances that glowed brightly in the limelight of the moment.

Born in Riga in 1949, Godunov first studied ballet in his native city where he was a classmate of Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1964 the Wonder-Boy Baryshnikov joined the Vaganova Choreographic Academy in Leningrad. A year later Godunov endeavoured to follow him but could not obtain a permit. Much dismayed, he resorted to Moscow and continued his studies at the Bolshoi Choreographic School where he was fortunate enough to be taught by that consummate artist Sergei Koren.

After graduating in 1967 he spent three years with Moiseyev's Young Dancers Company before returning to the Bolshoi fold as a soloist. He made his debut as the youth in Chopiniana and appeared in a number of classical roles in such ballets as Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote.

His fame soared when Maya Plisetskaya gave him the role of Karenin in her ballet Anna Karenina (1972). He succeeded Nicolai Fadeyechev as her regular partner and danced a flamboyant Jose to her Carmen in the Alberto Alonso production of that name. He brought a panache to everything he did. He won a gold medal in the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1973. His future with the Bolshoi seemed assured.

He married Ludmilla Vlasova, a dancer renowned for spectacular lifts. She was considerably older than him. He was a man who needed mothering. In August 1979, during the Bolshoi season in New York, Godunov decided to defect. There were dramatic scenes, with his wife sitting for three days on a plane at Kennedy airport while Soviet officials debated her freedom of choice to stay with her husband or to separate. In the end she elected to return to the Soviet Union.

It was a curious stroke of fate that Godunov's path should cross again with that of his old class-mate Baryshnikov; or was Baryshnikov, who had become the idol of American ballet, the crucial spur for his defection? At any rate, Godunov defected in order to join American Ballet Theatre of which Baryshnikov was the star and was due to be appointed its artistic director the following year.

Godunov's career with ABT was loaded with publicity: he was the golden boy, the talk of the town. His every appearance in the repertoire was hailed by press and public with eulogies amounting almost to hysteria, but after three years he was told there were no new roles for him. He did some guest appearances in South America under the banner Godunov and Friends and danced Swan Lake with Eva Evdokimova at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

During this time he built up a very close friendship with the film star Jacqueline Bisset, with whom he went to live in Los Angeles. She introduced him to movie agents and a new career in film and television opened up for him.

Godunov loved the United States and took a great interest in politics. He settled permanently in Hollywood and spent much time at the studio of Tatiana Riabouchinska, widow of David Lichine, who had been a star of de Basil's Ballet Russe in the 1930s. Recently he had found time to visit his mother in Riga and only a month ago was filming in Budapest.

Playing in turn a kindly farmer, a tempestuous orchestral conductor and a vicious terrorist, Alexander Godunov displayed a remarkable range of characterisation in his first three film roles, and it can only have been his apparently tenuous grasp and pronunciation of the English language that impeded his movie career, writes Tom Vallance.

His debut, in Peter Weir's Witness (1985), was particularly well received. In this popular thriller he plays an Amish farmer in love with a young widow (Kelly McGillis) whose son has witnessed a murder in New York City. Godunov makes clear (with a minimum of dialogue) the farmer's unease as he senses a rival in the tough cop (Harrison Ford) who joins the non-violent community to trap the killers; and he retains audience sympathy with an engaging portrait of rustic equanimity.

In Richard Benjamin's hyperactive comedy The Money Pit (1986), Godunov prudently underplayed his role as a tempestuous conductor, self-described as "shallow and self-centred", lending droll understatement to expressions of his temperament ("The union forces me to allow you to go to lunch," he tells his orchestra, "in spite of the way you played") and conceit - when his ex-wife splits with her new boyfriend he comments, "He's lost a wonderful woman and I know what it's like - I've lost many." Some of his lines, though, were less easily discerned behind his thick accent.

John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988) was one of the best thrillers of the decade, and as the most sinister of the arch- villain Alan Rickman's team of lethal terrorists, Godunov uses his blond athleticism to menacing effect as he stalks the hero (Bruce Willis) through the high-rise building that has been commandeered by the killers. Their encounter culminated in a particularly ferocious hand-to- hand struggle, with Godunov ultimately the vanquished.

It is surprising that after this telling role in a cinematic blockbuster, Godunov made only two further screen appearances and in horror films that had only limited release: Willard Carroll's The Runestone (1992), in which an archaeologist is turned into a monster by a piece of rock, and Waxwork 2: Lost in Time.

Boris Alexander Godunov, dancer, actor: born Riga 28 November 1949; married 1971 Ludmilla Vlasova (marriage dissolved 1982); died Los Angeles c18 May 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open