December 18, 1921|
Demidov, Smolensk oblast, Russia
|Died||August 21, 1997
|Occupation||actor, clown, ringmaster|
He was awarded the title of People's Artist of the USSR in 1973 and Hero of Socialist Labour in 1990. He also received a number of state awards, including the prestigious Order of Lenin, which he received twice in his lifetime.
Early life and battle
Nikulin was born just after the end of the Russian civil war, in Smolensk in Western Russia. His mother was a garage supervisor and his father a writer of satirical plays – "a profession which may have influenced [Nikulin's] future career"." Nikulin fought in the Red Army in the Winter War with Finland and the World War II with Germany. He reportedly had a comparably "long period of military service, from 1939 to 1946, preparing to be demobilised just when the German invasion of the Soviet Union began in 1941."
Nikulin's effortless style and precise delivery, as well as his mastery of timing and his hilarious masks made him an outstanding comedian, arguably the best Russian comedian ever. Nikulin showed his range in a variety of genres from slapstick comedy to romance and war drama. His most popular film partners were Georgiy Vitsin, Yevgeni Morgunov, Natalya Varley, Rolan Bykov, Anatoli Papanov, Sergei Filippov, Mikhail Pugovkin, Aleksandr Demyanenko, Leonid Kuravlyov, Andrey Mironov, Evgeni Evstigneev, Vasili Shukshin, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Sergei Bondarchuk, Nikolay Burlyaev, Viktor Pavlov, Boris Novikov Vladimir Etush, Saveli Kramarov, Nikolai Grinko, and many other notable Russian actors.
In the ring, Nikulin presented a phlegmatic temperament, slow and unsmiling, and to many in the West his personality was reminiscent of the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Rich in mimicry, doleful of expression, Nikulin was hailed as “a brainy clown” outside Russia. Simple in style and gentle with children, his only vestiges of make-up were a reddened nose and black lines around his eyes, much different from the grotesquely painted faces of Western clowns. Nikulin, affectionately called Uncle Yury by Russian children, relied mainly upon his wits to earn his place in history as one of the best clowns of the 20th century.
Nikulin first took up clowning in 1944 when a political officer in his battalion, impressed by his repertoire of jokes, ordered him to organize entertainment for the division, which he did with resounding success. Encouraged, once the war ended, Nikulin reportedly "tried unsuccessfully to enter drama college before answering a newspaper advertisement recruiting trainees for the Clown Studio at Moscow's Tsvetnoy Boulevard Circus." The several acting schools and theatres rejected Nikulin allegedly due to "lacking artistic talent". However, he did find initial success at the Circus and qualified as a fully trained clown in 1950, and never abandoned his links with the circus. He met his wife, Tatyana, there, and in 1982 became the director of the Moscow Circus, a post he held until his death. His son, Maxim, is now a circus administrator.
His screen debut came in 1958 with the film The Girl with the Guitar. He appeared in almost a dozen major features, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, "but his ascent to star status was assured by a handful of short films directed by Leonid Gaidai." The first two of these, Dog Barbos and Unusual Cross and later Bootleggers (Russian: Samogonchiki or The Moonshine Makers, 1961) were also where Nikulin was featured as a character named Fool in The Three Stooges-like trio, along with Georgy Vitsyn as Coward and Yevgeny Morgunov as Experienced. In former Soviet republics he is particularly well known for his role in popular film series about the criminal trio. The series included such films as Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures and Kidnapping Caucassian Style.
His most popular films include comedies Brilliantovaia Ruka (Diamond Arm), 12 Stulyev (12 Chairs), Stariki-Razboiniki (Old Hooligans). He was also acclaimed for his roles in Andrey Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and several films on World War II themes (Sergei Bondarchuk's They Fought for Their Country, Aleksei German’s Twenty Days Without War).
All his life Yuri Nikulin was fond of funny stories, which he started collecting while serving the army; the hobby later resulted in the TV show The White Parrot Club ("where celebrities would sit around a table telling jokes") and jest-books From Nikulin.
Reportedly, Nikulin's "comic timing never faltered" even in old age and "he had no enemies and mixed with politicians from both the Soviet and post -Soviet eras." He also reportedly was close to Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and supported Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign."
Reportedly, Nikulin was one of the "best-loved men in Russia" and his death was mourned "not just by Russians but by tens of millions in the wider Russian-speaking world from Ukraine to Kazakhstan as the actor and comic who more than any other expressed the daily woes and laughter of the Soviet Everyman."
As mentioned, Nikulin was succeeded in his office at the Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard by his son. There is a bronze monument to him in front of the circus, which now bears his name. He is buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow near former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Honours and awards
- Hero of Socialist Labour - 1990
- Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 3rd class
- Two Orders of Lenin (1980 and 1990)
- Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class
- Order of the Red Banner of Labour
- Order of the Badge of Honour
- Medal For Courage
- Medal "For Labour Valour"
- Medal "For the Defence of Leningrad"
- Medal "For the Victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945"
- People's Artist of USSR (1973)
- State Prize of the RSFSR Vasiliev brothers (1970)
- OBITUARY: YURI NIKULIN: HOW TO GRIN AND BEAR IT. James Meek. The Guardian (London). THE GUARDIAN FEATURES PAGE; Pg. 16. August 22, 1997.
- Yeltsin's Last Meeting with the People – Kommersant Moscow
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