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“My face is my breadwinner!”

 

Mykola Yakovchenko, a Ukrainian actor who won fame as a great comedian, was indeed blessed – or cursed? – with an appearance that could provoke laughter in the audience when he would just appear on stage or on the screen even before he would say anything funny. But behind a comic appearance there hid a complex personality with a tragic destiny.

 

Mykola Yakovchenko has stayed in the memory of several generations of movie and theater goers as one of the best comedians of Ukraine in the better part of the twentieth century.

He was born when the twentieth century was only a few months old — on May 3 1900. The century he lived in proved to be the bloodiest, the most cruel in the history of mankind. Probably to counterbalance the horrors, the twentieth century also produced the humankind’s greatest comics.

Pryluky in the land of Chernihivshchyna, Mykola’s native town, was a quiet provincial place. In his family there were five children — two sons and three daughters. His father Fedir was a fishmonger, and his mother Paraska was a housewife. At the tender age of six days the baby boy Mykola was baptized at the Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi (Birth of the Virgin Mary).

At the elementary school that Mykola was sent to, he did not show any enthusiasm for studies and was awarded only “satisfactory grades” in all the subjects he took. He was assessed to be “excellent” only in his exemplary behavior. Mykola did not qualify for the Pryluky classical hymanziya (among whose students there had been a number of prominent Ukrainian cultural figures — Levko Revutsky, Fedir Mishchenko, Oleksandr Shcherbyna and others), and so his next school as the next best option, was the local Jewish hymnaziya — a secondary school run by the local Jewish community. Mykola did not show any eagerness to apply himself with more vigor to studying, but in spite of his lack of educational zeal, he learnt some ancient Greek and Latin, some German and French. In his words, “I was educated in the school corridors rather than in class.”

Mykola’s grandmother tried to induce a greater respect for studies in her grandson but failed — instead, it was her personality rather than her efforts “to put him on the right track” that had a profound impact upon the boy. Mykola probably confided in her that his ambition was to become an actor. As a sort of substitute for stage acting, he sang in a church choir and was joined by his brother Serhiy but the experience showed that it was a far cry from acting on stage.

The opportunity to start a career of an actor did not tarry for too long and presented itself in 1918. In spite of the hard times of civil war that was raging in Ukraine, an amateur theater was set up in Pryluky by a former actress, Yevheniya Bazylevska, and Mykola was among the first to join the theater troupe. His first role was in a vau-

 

deville. The character Mykola played looked and behaved so differently from the person Mykola was in real life that his sister Oleksandra, who attended the performance, did not recognize her own brother on the stage.

The civil war caught up with Mykola in 1920 when, according to some sources, he worked for some time as a nurse at a movable hospital; there are also claims that he served in the army in a cavalry unit and even was awarded medals.

The moment things stabilized a little, Mykola, who was determined to continue his theatrical career, began to be looking for opportunities to perform on stage. His quest took him to Chernihiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Simferopol and other places.

In 1927, Mykola found himself in Kyiv where he auditioned at the repertory theater which later came to be known as the Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theater. The then leading director Hnat Yura appreciated Mykola’s obvious talent enhanced by a very special voice, and in the next two years Mykola performed in several plays. Among them were classical pieces, like Shakespeare’s Summer Night’s Dream. Gradually, Mykola’s predilection for comical roles became clearly defined.

1931 proved to be a year of considerable changes in Yakovchenko’s life — he got married and moved to Kharkiv.

Yakovchenko married an actress who played in the same theater. People wondered what a beautiful and stately young woman like her could find in a rather gawky man of short stature with a nose being his face’s most prominent feature. Those who knew Mykola better spoke of “some sort of magnetism” that he possessed. The marriage proved to be a happy one. The Yakovchenkos had two daughters — Iryna, born in 1932, and Yunona, born in 1937.

When the Franko Theater “delegated” a number of its actors to Kharkiv, the then capital of Ukraine, to help a newly established theater there “to find its feet,” among the actors who moved out to Kharkiv, were the Yakovchenkos.

Neither the living conditions nor the new theater itself seemed to satisfy Yakovchenko and his wife, and at the first opportunity they returned to Kyiv, back to the Franko Theater. New roles and new plays confirmed Yakovchenko as a charismatic actor, and his career at the Franko Theater seemed to have become fully established. But in 1939, Yakovchenko was drafted into the army. In November 1939, the “peaceful” Soviet Union invaded the neighboring state of Finland. The war, which the Soviet dictator Stalin must have thought could be won easily, turned out to be almost a disaster. The soviets suffered great losses but doggedly pushed on, despite very heavy losses, and eventually imposed a peace treaty on Finland which lost big chunks of its territory to the soviets. Yakovchenko survived the ordeal and once the war was over (in March 1940), he was demobilized and he was happy to return to Kyiv. However, for some reason, he was not taken back to the Franko Theater, and had to look for a job elsewhere. He did not have much of a problem of landing a job at another theater — he was much too good an actor to be left idle. Only several months later he, thanks to the support offered by the then leading Soviet Ukrainian dramatist Oleksandr Korniychuk, was invited back to the Franko Theater.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany, ignoring the non-aggression pact which, to the consternation of Europe, had been signed with the Soviet Union in 1939, very aggressively invaded the Soviet Union, with Ukraine being one of the major targets, and thus the hardest. The Franko Theater was evacuated to a province, thousands miles away from the front. When the Nazi tide that swept across the land was stymied by the stiffening resistance, groups of actors were organized to travel along the frontline, giving performances designed to raise the morale and entertain the fiercely and heroically fighting troops. Yakovchenko and many other Franko Theatre actors joined such groups. Yakovchenko’s prodigious talents of an entertainer came in very handy and were highly appreciated wherever he went. Not once his life was in peril, when the site he performed at came under fire.

Yakovchenko’s easy humor and engaging personality became legendary. Legends and anecdotes were circulating about Yakovchenko, particularly connected with his drinking exploits. He was said to be able to outdrink anybody. Unfortunately — or rather tragically — alcohol was steadily becoming an addiction. The hardships of the war contributed to this intemperance, but when the war was over in 1945, it seemed it would be less of a problem.

The fate decreed otherwise — in 1946, his much beloved wife Tetyana, not yet forty, died of cancer, leaving Yakovchenko to raise their daughters alone. Drink seemed to be an obvious retreat. For some time, it did not interfere with work, but in the early nineteen-fifties, in spite of his very successful performances, in the classical Ukrainian play Martyn Borulya by Karpenko-Kary in particular, the management of the Franko Theater decided to fire Yakovchenko. Once again, he was rescued by Korniychuk who was of a very high opinion of Yakovchenko’s thespian gift.

Yakovhenko’s daughters did what they could to prevent their father from drinking, but their efforts were not very successful. Yakovchenko’s fame exacerbated the drinking situation still further. He was invited to play roles, one after another, in movies; he recited humor on the radio and at concerts. These engagements brought additional money — by the then standards a lot of money, and the money bought liquor.

By the early nineteen-sixties, Yakovchenko’s had become one of the best-known faces in Ukraine. A great popular success of such films as Za dvoma zaytsyamy, made him a household name but only a close circle of people knew that the actor was fighting and losing a constant battle with alcohol.

He lived next door to the theater, and was often seen walking his dog Fan-Fan (the name was borrowed from the title of the French film Fan-Fan the Tulip (Fan-Fan La Tulipe, French motion picture, which was released in 1951; the title role of Fan-Fan the Tulip was played by Gerard Philipe) in the small park in front of the theater in the mornings and in the evenings; more often than not, it was not immediately obvious who walked who, as the master of the dog had a problem of staying upright or even finding the way back home.

There were two benches outside the low fence of the park which faced the theater, and it was on these benches that the actors used to sit before and after rehearsals and during the breaks. One of the leading story tellers was Yakovchenko, and even though they were hardened professionals, the actors could not help laughing. Those of the passers-by who were lucky enough to overhear some of the stories full of Yakovchenko’s sparkling humor, passed them on.

But his personal life was far from sparkling. By the end of the fifties, he was not entrusted with many roles at the theater, and he appeared on stage only occasionally. At the same time, his appearances in films increased in number, probably because the schedules of filming were more flexible, and disruptions caused by his being unable to perform, were not disastrous. During the filming of one of the movies, the film director was reported saying to his makeup assistant, “Don’t do anything with this face — you can only spoil it!” Yakovchenko quipped, “Yes, it’s my natural face that is the breadwinner!”

In January 1970, Yakovchenko’s elder daughter, aged 38, died of cancer. It was a blow that did the actor in. The theater celebrated his seventieth birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of his being on stage. But many realized, and probably the actor, himself, that his glory days were over. Nevertheless, he did play another role in a film in 1972.

On September 1974, Mykola Yakovchenko died of what was diagnosed as peritonitis caused by appendicitis. When an ambulance brought him to a hospital, and he was rushed to the surgery, it turned out to be too late, and the hastily performed operation failed to save him. Before the anesthesia was administrated, the actor was reported as saying, “Now the clown enters the arena…”

 

Mykola Yakovchenko played over 200 roles in theatres, and 55 roles in the movies. Now he, cast in bronze, sits on a bench in the little park near the Franko Theater, with his dog Fan-Fan at his feet. Many people have their photos taken sitting next to him, though few know the woeful story of a great comedian. n

 

A still from the film Za dvoma zaytsyamy. 1961.

 

A still from the film Koroleva benzokolonki. 1963.

 

 

Logo of the All-Ukraine Young Actors’ Competition named after M. Yakovchenko.

Tetyana Yevseyenko, M. Yakovchenko’s wife.

 

A still from the film Ryatuyte nashi dushi. 1960.

 

A photo from the early days of M. Yakovchenko’s career as an actor.

 

M. Yakovchenko with his grandson Mykola.

 

Yunna Yakovchenko, M. Yakovchenko’s younger daughter.

 

Mykola Yakovchenko entertains his guests.

 

M. Yakovchenko and M. Panasyev, actors of the Ivan Franko Drama Theater, on stage.

 

Mykola Yakovchenko among the actors who gave performances at the front to boost soldiers’ morale. 1943.

 

Mykola Yakovchenko, actress Olha Kusenko and actor Mykola Panasyev in a comedy scene.

 

Monument to M. Yakovchenko in the park near the Ivan Franko Drama Theater in Kyiv, of which M. Yakovchenko was an actor.

 

Based on an essay by Yuliya ORLENKO written for the TV serial Hra doli (Games of Fate) by VIATEL Studio.

Photos have been provided by www.yakovchenko.com.ua.

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