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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

After defecting from Russia in 1979, Godunov's luck remained equally good: within six weeks, he had landed a spot as principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. It didn't last. In 1982, ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov abruptly fired Godunov. The official company statement said that Godunov's repertory was too limited, and that the financially strapped company could not afford the dancer's $5,500-a-week salary. Godunov, stung by the dismissal, went public with his anger, complaining to the press that "they threw me away like a potato peel."

The firing did not end his dance career, however. In the next few years, Godunov performed as a guest artist with various companies as well as organizing his own temporary troupes for tours, including one show called "Godunov and Stars."

During the mid-1980s, Godunov's movie career began--and his dance career ended. In 1984, Godunov was preparing to leave on a summer dance tour of South America and Europe that he had organized. He was packing his bags when a phone call informed him that money problems in South America had scuttled the tour. Luckily, the next day he got another phone call--from the casting office of Australian director Peter Weir, offering him the part of a dour Amish farmer in Weir's 1985 film "Witness." Weir had been impressed by Godunov after watching the 1983 PBS special "Godunov: The World to Dance In."

"They set up for me to have breakfast the next morning with Peter Weir," Godunov says. "So through all this, I am sitting trembling-- thinking, now, he is going to ask me to read the lines. How, I have no idea. This is a big failure, bye-bye, nice talking to you."

Weir did not ask Godunov to read the lines. At the end of the breakfast, he simply told Godunov: "See you in Pennsylvania." Godunov asked for a screen test. You don't understand, Weir told Godunov. You don't need a screen test. You've got the part. Doggedly, Godunov once again asked for a screen test.

"I believe the casting lady fell off the couch when she heard that: 'The guy got part, he's asking for screen test?"' Godunov says. "Well, I wasn't thinking that way. For me, it was like the discipline from ballet. You practice, practice, practice. You may have danced the role for months and months, but you still have to go through the same routine, every morning, the same exercises. I just wanted to be in front of the camera."

Godunov got his screen test ("I was nervous to death") as well as the part.

Godunov picked up his dance career briefly after "Witness"-- but ended it abruptly. He does not remember the place or the exact date; his publicist of 10 years, Evelyn Shriver, thinks it happened in Detroit in 1984. But somewhere, after a concert, Godunov remembers saying to his then-companion Jacqueline Bisset: "You saw my last performance."

Godunov had begun studying acting in L.A. a year earlier. He admits his grand Bolshoi theatricality didn't cut with his acting teachers, Bill Taylor and Peggy Furie. "I have danced princes in 'Ivan the Terrible,' all kinds of characters . . . but it's a hell of a difference," he says. "I probably feel more comfortable than someone who was not on the stage ever, but still, you have to do it with your voice, rather than with your body."

Acting class apparently worked well enough: Godunov soon landed other roles. In 1986, he portrayed a comically arrogant symphony conductor in "The Money Pit." And, in 1988, Godunov played one of the very bad guys in the box-office smash "Die Hard."

"Waxwork II" writer and director Anthony Hickox remains surprised that Godunov, who turned down the role of Dracula in the original "Waxwork," accepted a part in the sequel. Godunov had also turned down a part in Hickox's film "Sundown."

Hickox describes Godunov's role in "Waxwork II" as a "tormented soul who is in love with his own sister and descends into his own madness." "Probably his agent and everybody else gave him a hard time about it, and said: 'What, are you crazy? You do 'Die Hard,' and then you do 'Waxwork II?' " Hickox imitates the appropriate level of agent-ly disgust.

Between "Die Hard" and "Waxwork II," Godunov has done only one other film: "Runestone," produced last year by Hyperion. It has not been released.

Godunov knows he might be in a different place in his career had he remained a dancer. He knows he might even be somewhere different had he chosen to do what his former fellow student at the Bolshoi, Mikhail Baryshnikov, did: star in dance films such as "The Turning Point" and "White Nights"--though Baryshnikov's latest role is not as a dancer but as a KGB agent in MGM/Pathe's "Company Business," which opened Friday.

But Godunov decided a long time ago that he didn't want to get into the movies on his strength as a dancer.

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