13 October 1934|
Moscow, Russian SSR, Soviet Union
|Died||6 June 1995
San Francisco, California, United States
Savely Viktorovich Kramarov (Russian: Саве́лий Ви́кторович Кра́маров; 13 October 1934 – 6 June 1995), known almost universally in his native Russia, was one of the most popular comic actors of Soviet cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s. He acted in at least 42 Soviet films, and had parts in several more in his adopted USA.
Difficult early life
Saveli Kramarov was born 13 October 1934 to Jewish parents: father Viktor Savelyevich Kramarov (Виктор Савельевич Крамаров), a prominent Moscow attorney, and mother Benedikta Solomonovna "Basya" Kramarova (neé Volchek) (Бенедиктa Соломоновнa "Бася" Крамарова (Волчек)). When young Savely was only three years old, the elder Kramarov represented some defendants in a widely publicized Soviet secret police case. Within a year Saveli’s father was himself the victim of a "Stalinist purge"—his crime, representing his clients too vigorously. Arrested and tortured to confess, Saveli’s father was sentenced to a term of eight years in the Soviet Gulag. Savely’s mother was forced to divorce his convict father, and mother and son lived for a time in a communal apartment. Before Victor Kramarov’s prison term was up, young Savely’s mother died, leaving him effectively an orphan. By a stroke of luck, she had managed to register him as Russian, not Jewish, on his domestic Soviet passport. Saveli was once allowed to see his father prior to the elder Kramarov’s exile in Biisk; during this meeting, his father, practically a stranger to him, told Saveli of his Jewish faith that had sustained him in prison. In the 1950s, the once prominent attorney died in exile. Saveli spent the remainder of his childhood in poverty, living with relatives, mainly his maternal uncles. During this time, Saveli was diagnosed with tuberculosis; a Jewish physician helped him back to health.
Seeking to follow in his father’s footsteps with a career in law, Kramarov quickly found that door closed for the son of an enemy of the people. Instead Kramarov accepted an offer to technical school for forestry science. It was around this time Kramarov started acting. Kramarov did not attend formal acting school, at the State Theatre Art Institute, until 1972, well after achieving film stardom. At the same time as his late schooling for acting, he took up yoga, which attracted negative attention from the Soviet authorities.
Soviet stage and film career
Kramarov’s first serious acting work was on stage in the late 1950s, in the lead role of Vasily Shukshin’s Vanka, How are You Here. Soon Kramarov was invited to act in Soviet cinema. His first film role was as Soldier Petkin in They Were Nineteen (Im bilo devyatnadtsat) (1960). By his second film, My Friend, Kolka!, Kramarov was well on his way to Soviet stardom. His goofy persona (in part a natural result of his being cross-eyed) delighted audiences. And he was a director’s dream, dependably turning his lead roles into film-making gold. At the end of his life, Kramarov was asked to identify his favorite films he made; He named My Friend, Kolka!, The Elusive Avengers, The Twelve Chairs, Gentlemen of Fortune, There Can't Be, and Big School-Break.
But for all his fame and wealth, Kramarov recalled, his life was not whole. His religious identity learned from his family, which he had to hide in the Soviet Union, weighed on him. In 1979, he became a practicing Orthodox Jew; and he actively practiced his faith the rest of his life.
Emigration application and end of his Soviet career
It was at the height of his Soviet fame and fortune when Kramarov, in 1979, startled the Soviet authorities with his application for emigration. By this time he had made 42 films and was one of the Soviet Union's most popular film stars. His application rejected, Kramarov’s films were suppressed nationwide; his film career was dead. He found his only outlet to continue acting was a theatre of refuseniks, where the passports of prospective audience members were checked on arrival at a performance.
Not giving up hope, Kramarov next took up a campaign in Western news media to secure his coveted exit visa, going so far as to write to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as from "one actor to another." The Reagan letter was read multiple times on Voice of America radio.
Upon finally being allowed to leave on 31 October 1981, Kramarov became persona non grata in the Soviet Union, like all celebrities considered traitors or enemies of the state. His name was removed from credits of all the films that had made him so successful. Recalling a newly Kramarov-less Soviet Union, Oleg Vidov, another Russian actor who emigrated after Kramarov, noted, "The government took all of his posters down from the walls. They didn't want to have to explain why he left; it was easier just to forget."
American film career and later life
Kramarov achieved only moderate success in American cinema, playing small Russian roles. Americans know him best, probably, for his role as, ironically, a Soviet KGB handler in Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson, starring Robin Williams. Kramarov returned to his motherland only once, in 1992, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, as the guest of honour at a Russian film festival. After moving to Los Angeles in 1992, Kramarov missed the forests surrounding his native Moscow. He bought a home in a wooded area in Forest Knolls, Marin County, north of San Francisco, where he found freedom. In early 1995, Kramarov's American career was taking off; he had just landed a lead role in a new film. But then tragedy struck.
In March 1995, Kramarov underwent what is normally routine surgery to remove a bowel tumor. As unexpected complications, he suffered debilitating strokes and eventually endocarditis. Kramarov died at Pacific Medical Center Hospital in San Francisco on 6 June 1995, age 60. He was survived by his wife Natalia Siradze, as well as his daughter from a previous marriage, Batia Kramarov.
Thanks to the personal contributions of fellow former Soviet exiles of Kramarov’s including artist Mikhail Chemiakin, a unique gravestone containing "casts of [Kramarov’s] comedy masks, scripts, [and] make-up brushes," and his framed photograph was placed at the Jewish cemetery Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California, in 1997. Of Kramarov, his rabbi, Joseph Langer, said, "He was a sincerely believing person, humble and kind" and "[He] was a holy goofball."
"Mr. Kramarov was perhaps the most beloved figure in the Soviet Union," noted his former fellow Soviet actor Oleg Vidov. Kramarov's consistently-played version of a stock "Crazy Ivan" character "provided a veneer of protection in a totalitarian society. "When you're clever, the system kills you," Vidov said. "When you're crazy, you can get away with things." "[Kramarov] touched off a chain reaction of smiles every time he walked down a Moscow street... 'He was our guy,'" concluded Vidov.
- Thirty Three (1965)
- The Elusive Avengers (1966) as Iliya
- The New Adventures of the Elusive Avengers (1968) as Iliya
- The Secret of the Iron Door (1970)
- Gentlemen of Fortune (1971) as Fedya
- Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973) as Feofan
- Ma-ma (Rock 'n' Roll Wolf) (1976) as the little wolf
- 2010 (1984) as Dr. Vladimir Rudenko
- Moscow on the Hudson (1984) as Boris
- Armed and Dangerous (1986) as Olaf
- Morgan Stewart's Coming Home (1987) as Ivan
- Red Heat (1988) as Gregor Moussorsky
- Tango & Cash (1989) as Car Owner
- Love Affair (1994) as Cable Officer
- ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr (June 8, 1995). "Savely Kramarov, Comedian Revered in Russia, Dies at 60". Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- "Russia-IC / People / Culture & Art / K / Saveli Kramarov". Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- "Савелий Крамаров (биография)". Retrieved February 26, 2013. Cite error: Invalid
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- "OBITUARY -- Savely Kramarov". June 8, 1995. Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- Sandra Brennan, Rovi. "Savely Kramarov: Biography". Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- "Savely Kramarov -- Full Biography". 2010. Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- DEBORAH CAULFIELD (September 2, 1985). "Oleg Vidov--coming To The Mountain At Last". Retrieved February 26, 2013.
- SARAH COLEMAN (October 17, 1997). "Gravestone a fitting monument to comic actor's life". Retrieved February 26, 2013.