Life and Work in the Community of Russian Expatriate Actors: the Shaynes and Tamiroff

Dennis K. Shayne, Independent scholar

The speaker grew up in Southern California during the Golden Age of Hollywood, a second-generation Russian and a close relative of a number of very respected and well-known Russian emigre actors, who utilized their Russian roots and Russian theatrical training during long careers on the U.S. stage and screen. (With their Russian-accented pronunciations, those multi-faceted actors were also pressed into service to portray numerous other "ethnic types," from Latinos to Orientals, sometimes memorably so.) The speaker will place these subjects in the broad wave of artistic emigres from the early Soviet empire, who eventually established themselves in various creative professions in the USA. In cinema, some of these talented expatriates achieved sufficient notice to merit the publication of hard-cover books in English (Brynner, Nazimova, Tiomkin, Balanchine, Mamoulian, Milestone, Boleslawski, even Victoria Fedorova). But other ex-Russians, especially some very talented "character actors," have attracted much less attention. They are hard to find in various encyclopedias and reference books -- Western sources miss them because they never became celebrities, while Russian sources have tended to omit them due to their emigre status.

The speaker will devote the main part of this presentation to three of these Russian character actors, whose very different lives and careers are worthy of serious study. An ongoing study, in fact, on which the speaker is now working, having collected considerable primary (unpublished) source material direct from the archives of those three thespians. The speaker will also share with listeners some personal memories of growing up in the immediate ambit of those three colorful Russian-American personalities. They are:

1. Konstantin Sergeevich Shein (in US spelled "Shayne," 1888-1974). Reliable performer of dozens of diverse characters, often minor, but always studiously developed on screen. Brief video excerpt from arguably his greatest role, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin in Mission to Moscow (1943), will be shown.

2. Tamara Veniaminovna Nikulina-Tamirova (stage name "Tamara Shayne," 1902-1983). Half-sister of Konstantin Shayne. Personality by instinct, actress by chance. Tended to be overshadowed on screen (e.g., Welles and Ratoff's Black Magic) by her husband.

3. Akim Pavlovich Tamiroff (1899-1972). Considered by some media historians as the greatest character actor in the history of Hollywood, and ranked along with Brynner and Nazimova as probably the three most successful Russian actors on the US screen. Acting was Tamiroff's life. His performance extended to his personal life. If time permits, a brief video excerpt from one of his major screen roles (General Died at Dawn, Great McGinty, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Dragon Seed, Anastasia, Touch of Evil) will be shown.