Page last updated at 00:26 GMT, Saturday, 5 December 2009

Actor who immortalised Soviet spy Stirlitz dies at 81

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

Mueller (left) and Stirlitz in a still from the Soviet TV film 17 Moments Of Spring
New jokes are still being made about Stirlitz (right) and Mueller

Russian actor Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who immortalised a fictional wartime spy called Stirlitz in a 1973 Soviet TV series, has died in Moscow at 81.

Tikhonov, more familiar to Western audiences as Prince Andrei in an epic Soviet adaptation of War And Peace in the 1960s, had suffered a heart attack.

As Stirlitz, he was as familiar to Soviets as James Bond in the West.

Jokes about his encounters with the Gestapo chief Mueller in Nazi Berlin remain a national treasure in Russia.

The series, 17 Moments Of Spring, has been a perennial offering on Russian television.

Whereas other Soviet spy films can look dated, 17 Moments remains eminently watchable thanks to the quality of the script, the apparent attention to period detail and, above all, the quality of the acting of Tikhonov with such co-stars as Leonid Bronevoy and Oleg Tabakov.

Reacting to news of his death, Karen Shakhnazarov, director general of the Mosfilm studios in Moscow, said: "For many generations, he personified the best in Soviet cinema."

Russian film director, Eldar Ryazanov, described Tikhonov's death as a "catastrophe".

"I'm sorry, he was my friend and I'm in no state to say anything now," he told Interfax news agency.

Stirlitz and Mueller

Born in the central Russian town of Pavlov Posad on 8 February 1928, the son of a mechanic and a kindergarten teacher, Tikhonov worked as a lathe operator before applying for film school in Moscow in 1945.


Walking through the forest, Stirlitz noticed a pair of eyes staring out at him from the hollow of a tree.

"An owl," thought Stirlitz.

"Owl yourself," thought Mueller.

Endowed with the good looks and gravitas of a Gregory Peck, he appeared in some 50 films, including Soviet favourites such as It happened in Penkovo (1957) and They Fought For The Motherland (1975).

International recognition came with the central role of the philosophical Prince Andrei in Sergei Bondarchuk's Oscar-winning version of War And Peace (1968), set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Tikhonov also had a part in Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 Oscar-winning film about the Stalinist repressions, Burnt By The Sun.

The actor was decorated with state awards in his home country , and Russia's leaders duly paid tribute to him on news of his death.

However, arguably the greatest honour is the continuing affection for Tikhonov shown by Russian and other fans of 17 Moments.

In the series, he plays a Soviet spy masquerading as an SS colonel at the top of the Nazi hierarchy in the twilight of the Third Reich.

He manages to keep one step ahead of the enemy, maintaining his cover in the company of Mueller (Bronevoy) and others in the corridors of Nazi power, as suspicion grows.

While the TV series is played as straight drama, with complex characters and a refreshing lack of in-your-face Soviet propaganda, its scenarios lend themselves to humour and the jokes are legion.

"Stirlitz walked through the streets of Berlin, dragging his parachute behind him," goes an old one. "Never had he been so close to failure."

BBC website readers have been sending in their tributes. Here is a selection of them.

He was the very symbol of Russian intelligentsia among actors: unique and irreplaceable.
Sergey, Toronto, Canada

Before my family emigrated, Mr Tikhonov gave us pride and entertainment. He was one of a kind. Part of my childhood feels lost.
Serviegn Tolstoy, Portland, US

Slowly but surely the great Soviet actors of the second half of the 20th century are leaving this world behind. And while Tikhonov was a very good actor he was overshadowed by his character - much like the men who portrayed James Bond). It is highly doubtful that anyone can portray Stirlitz other than him and such was the impression of his performance that he will remain with the Russians for at least 30 more years. Rest in peace Vyacheslav.
Artem Nekrich, Mazkeret Batya, Israel

Of course, every Russian knows him. He was very popular and I was lucky enough to meet him in person during the late 90s. He is a wonderful actor and it is a great loss but, as they say, God gives and God takes.
Yevgeniy Panov, Indianapolis, US

Farewell Stirlitz. Farewell old good times...
Tania Baumann, Switzerland

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