Alexander Godunov, the Cold War deserter who ended up in our sparkling ads (and ‘The Crystal Jungle’) | Culture | ICON


The many fans of the already Christmas classic The jungle of crystal (1988) know that Kal Vreski is John McClane’s most bloodthirsty enemy, the hero played by Bruce Willis. The one plotting the assault on the Nakatomi Plaza building is Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), yes, but the one who relentlessly pursues McClane throughout the entire footage is Vreski. They also know that he has the honor of being the first to kill and the last to die, and that he is the only one who does not do it at the hands of an unleashed Willis, but the most charismatic cop in the movie. What perhaps not everyone knows is that the Russian Alexander Godunov (Sakhalin Island, 1949 – Los Angeles, 1995), the man behind the hit man, had, in addition to a historical surname, an even more interesting life than that of his character .

In the summer of 1979, already leading dancer of the Bolshoi, Godunov starred in one of the most tense moments of the Cold War the day he defected taking advantage of a tour of the Soviet company in the United States. It was what Rudolf Nureyev in Paris and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Toronto had already done, but this time the story included a melodramatic element. The deserter was accompanied by his wife, the dancer Ludmila Vlasova.

Vlasova had been Godunov’s mentor since he was named first Bolshoi dancer at 17. The two became a couple on and off stage (she had to leave her husband before) and remained together until that night in New York. After a performance, Godunov did not return to the hotel where the company was staying. The speculations continued until the next day The New York Post announced his defection on the cover.

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Alexander Godunov in 1981.
Alexander Godunov in 1981.Craig B. Highberger (Getty Images)

When the State Department confirmed Godunov’s request for political asylum, the Soviet government sent the entire delegation to Moscow immediately. The troupe He left the hotel through the garage and fled to JFK airport. Before takeoff, a New York Port Authority car stood in front of the plane to prevent takeoff. Vlasova could not leave the country until the US authorities confirmed that she was doing so on her own and not intimidated or under the influence of any drug. For three days, six American and six Soviet officials negotiated on a platform attached to the plane (this was considered Soviet soil). Pan Am supplied them with food and basic products that they left at the hatch.

There were 52 Soviet passengers on board: the government would not let them go out in solidarity with the dancer. At the airport, dozens of journalists around the world awaited the outcome while the crowd waited outside the airport with signs reading: “Free Ludmila!”

After 73 hours and 38 minutes, the plane took off with Vlasova on board, to Godunov’s bewilderment. Her lover, the daughter of a worker at the Red Army Theater, had chosen her homeland. “He was asked if there was anyone he wanted to see or something he wanted to do before he left,” Donald F. McHenry, diplomat and confidant of President Jimmy Carter on this matter, told reporters. His answer, according to the Washington Post, it was: “Nyet”. When asked if that epic had been worth it, McHenry was blunt: “Defending the right of an individual to express their points of view is worth it.”

Elton John, Alana Stewart and Alexander Godunov at a party held by Vanity Fair magazine.
Elton John, Alana Stewart and Alexander Godunov at a party held by Vanity Fair magazine.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Vlasova was received in Moscow as a heroine while the American media accused her of being a spy. “They asked me to stay, but I insisted that I should go back to my mother, she could not have borne it,” she explained. Two years later they were officially divorced through the embassy. Godunov had won his freedom, but he had lost the love of his life.

It was his turn to reinvent himself in a strange country. His main support was Baryshnikov, a friend for two decades, who named him the first dancer of the American Ballet Theater that he directed. The appointment lasted six weeks: something went wrong between the gigantic ego of one and the explosive character of the other. The company’s official statement after the dismissal was that Godunov’s repertoire was too limited.

Godunov was adjusting to his new home: “When you leave the Bolshoi school you are a professional dancer. You may not be a star, but you can work anywhere. But in acting, wherever you go, Paris, London, Los Angeles, especially Los Angeles, almost all of them are actors. Whether they are taxi drivers or waiters, the bottom line is that they are actors looking for a job. Which means that the doors are open to anyone, but that does not mean that you go through them ”, he lamented in 1991 in The Los Angeles Times, when he looked back on his early years in the industry.

Tom Hanks and Alexander Godunov in a scene from 'This House is a Ruin'.
Tom Hanks and Alexander Godunov in a scene from ‘This House is a Ruin’.Sunset Boulevard (Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1984 he received the call that would change – momentarily – his life. The director of casting from Sole witness, the classic Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in the Amish community, had thought of him to play the laconic secondary in love with the protagonist. Peter Weir, who had been impressed by the dancer after watching the special Godunov: The world to dance, I agreed.

A week later I was having breakfast with the director. “I thought he was going to take a test and, since I have no idea, he would say to me: ‘This is a great failure, a pleasure to talk to you,” he said at the time. But there was no proof. Weir said goodbye to him with a “see you in Pennsylvania,” where the filming was to take place. Godunov entered the cinema through the front door: Sole witness, which also marked Viggo Mortensen’s film debut and confirmed Harrison Ford as a dramatic actor, received eight Oscar nominations and won two. The film was a critical and box office success. “Mr. Godunov shows a self-assurance that steals every scene in which he appears,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times.

Godunov had potential. I had already been studying acting at the Stella Adler academy for a year and with her next film she completely changed the register: in This house is a ruin (1986) took on wild comedy by playing a smug conductor trying to get between Tom Hanks and Shelley Long’s love affair. This time the critics were not kind, but he was soon able to wipe away the tears with the success of his next and most successful film: The jungle of crystal.

Alexander Godunov leaving a restaurant in West Hollywood in 1987.
Alexander Godunov leaving a restaurant in West Hollywood in 1987.Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

The sentimental success had been added to the work success. Since the mid-eighties he dated actress Jacqueline Bisset, whom Newsweek he had called “the most attractive actress of all time.” They became a star couple. “Their sensual beauty has made them a fixture on the party circuit and a joy to the fans. paparazzi. They often flaunt outrageous outfits that look like a parody of sexuality. A physical dazzle that has often overshadowed their talents, ”wrote David Wallace of the couple in the issue of People whose cover they occupied in 1985.

For the actress’s 39th birthday, Godunov flew to Mexico, where Bisset was filming at the time. Under the volcano (1984) and congratulated her with a giant chocolate cake. On her 40th anniversary, she planted rose petals in the hotel room where the actress was staying and hired a trio of violinists. In 1986 they were put together for the first time before the cameras to star in the Freixenet Christmas advertisement, where in other years international stars had passed, from Shirley McLaine to Raquel Welch, and it had become an international event.

During his stay in Spain, journalists were able to verify the complicated nature of the dancer, something that, added to his alcoholic excesses, was already beginning to close doors (which he had not closed himself with his character). “I had offers to interpret dancers and deserters, my own story. But I didn’t want to. I’m not saying that ballet movies are bad and shouldn’t be made, but they won’t be made with me, ”he probably quipped Baryshnikov, whose most popular film, Sunny nights (1985), told the story of a Soviet dancer who after deserting was forced to return to the USSR.

Nor did he want to be Kal Vreski forever. The movie had pigeonholed him. “After The jungle of crystalObviously, they offered me to play the bad guys. I would get a script, and I would call to be told about my character and the answer was, ‘Oh, you are going to wear a long black coat, you are going to walk into a restaurant and you will take a gun out of your pocket and shoot. And Alexander, please don’t forget, keep the same expression on your face as The jungle of crystal”, He lamented in The Los Angeles Times.

Godunov stood before that role. Also those of all the excruciating Amish farmers and conductors he was offered after his first two movies. To the surprise of his agent, he did agree to star in, Waxwork II: The Mystery of the Holes (1992), by Anthony Hickox, in which he played a “tormented soul who is in love with his own sister and descends into the hells of his own madness” and where he coincided with other stars who had also lost their step in the eighties as David Carradine, Drew Barrymore and Spandau Ballet bassist Gary Kemp. It was a cheap production that would go unnoticed, but he had turned down so many projects that his phone had stopped ringing.

In the early 1990s his film career was at its lowest point and his relationship with Bisset had broken down. The actress had begged him to come to a clinic for addiction treatment, but he refused. They parted ways without scandals and remained good friends. After the breakup, he had an affair with the protagonist of Haunted, Elisabeth Montgomery, but as alcohol abuse increased, she isolated herself from everyone.

His body was found on the morning of May 18, 1995, in his Los Angeles apartment. The artist to whom The New York Times he had defined as a “pre-Raphaelite angel posing as a punk-rock idol” he was only 45 years old, but he was already totally destroyed by alcohol. His friend and publicist Loree Rodkin, one of the few people with Bisset who always remained by his side, told in Entertainment Weekly that from the age of 14 Godunov drank at least one bottle of vodka a day. “Alexander was a smug, taciturn, passionate depressive maniac who had stepped into his role as a crazy Russian.” It was the last role for the star who once had two world powers on edge.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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