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COVER STORY : Lost in America : Alexander Godunov wanted to make it in the movies without drawing on his fame in ballet; now he's another struggling actor

September 08, 1991|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Madame Tatiana Riabouchinska-Lichine, 75, former principal dancer of the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and now grande dame of the Lichine Ballet Academy in Beverly Hills, insists that Alexander Godunov--her very dear friend Sasha --wouldn't hurt a fly.

She admits, however, that Godunov scares the kittens.

The Lichine Ballet Academy houses a wide assortment of cats; Godunov, former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, occasionally takes or teaches class there. The feline family includes a recent litter of kittens. "Mr. Alexander," says Lichine, objected to giving the kittens away--but the ungrateful baby cats remain terrified of the 6-foot-3, deep-voiced Russian with the blond lion's mane, and run when they see him coming. The kittens may have a point. Godunov is intimidating--at least at first. Meet him, for example, for an interview at the Sunset Strip headquarters of Electric Pictures--for whom Godunov recently completed his latest film, a "horror-comedy" called "Waxwork II: Lost in Time."

Godunov greets a visitor politely enough, obligingly prowling the Electric Pictures suite for an empty office in which to talk. His representative graciously asks how long she might leave Godunov and his visitor alone. Perhaps an hour or so?

Godunov nods. Then shrugs. Then adds, darkly: "Or maybe five minutes."

Dressed in a black leather jacket with zippered sleeves, a white sun visor, skin-tight jeans and a white shirt unbuttoned to just-above-navel baring a chest full of chains and a dangling Russian cross, Godunov lowers his long body into a chair. He lights a cigarette. This is good. Maybe the conversation will last as long as the cigarette.

But, after fretting slightly about his visitor's tape recorder ("It makes your mind work less I think . . . actually, you don't have to listen to me"), Godunov starts talking. The five-minute mark passes; more cigarettes are lit.

Kind of like "Waxwork II," Godunov is scary, but both have a healthy sense of camp humor. Once a Bolshoi ballet legend whose dramatic defection from the Soviet Union made headlines, he is now just another struggling actor in Hollywood. In 1983, he started taking acting classes. And his first roles were promising: Peter Weir's "Witness" and the original "Die Hard." Unlike Mikhail Baryshnikov, who made his first splash in the movie world portraying a dancer ("The Turning Point"), it looked as if Godunov might make it as an actor without banking on his strength in dance.

But, Godunov has found, dance stardom doesn't necessarily translate to Hollywood stardom. There have been no top roles since 1988's "Die Hard;" Godunov says he does not receive scripts that satisfy him. His publicist tells a different story: She says Godunov's lack of work results from his refusal to play the Hollywood game. His intimidating personality has led to clashes with Hollywood agents; now he doesn't have one at all. She adds that he turns down parts in big-budget films with frustrating regularity, considering unorthodox roles in less prestigious films, or taking projects due to personal loyalties and friendships instead of weighing their value as career moves.

Such a friendship led to his current part as the diabolic ruler of an 18th-Century English castle in "Waxwork II"--the sequel to a cult horror movie about a wax museum and its evil inhabitants. But he's kept a mordant sense of humor about it. "Forty-one--getting older in America," he says with mock despair.

"I am still waiting for next film," says Godunov; he finished "Waxwork II" June 30. His accent, after 12 years in the United States, remains thick. "How long I will wait, I don't know.

"It's very difficult, because you say 'No' and the next morning you say: 'Oh, no, I should have said yes!' Because I want to work, that's where you learn. But so far, a few films I said no to, I blessed myself that I wasn't in them. It's a tricky game."

"Waxwork II"--a low-budget (about $3 million) film targeted for a cult audience, is described like this: "The wax museum burns furiously, as Mark and Sarah run from the Flaming Behemouth. The Waxwork and the evil inhabitants have finally been destroyed . . . or have they? A severed hand, lone survivor of the wreckage, crawls painfully from the rubble. . . ."

To reveal the hand's intentions would spoil the tale (eventual fate: garbage disposal). Instead, the story of how Godunov went from ballet to the movies:

When Godunov was 9, his mother took him to the Bolshoi School. Out of about 250 applicants, they selected 13; one of them was Godunov. At 19, he joined the Bolshoi Ballet. Though most young dancers start out in minor roles, Godunov says simply, "My first role was prince in Swan Lake."

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