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Foreign Actor Answers the Siren Call of Hollywood

August 30, 1993|CARLA HALL

In his home country, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the tall, blue-eyed actor was famous enough to have fans screaming after him on the street. "Kukaracha!" they would yell--after his title role in a film about a good cop tussling with bad guys on the eve of World War II.

He had his own fledgling studio, a house in the mountains, an apartment in Tbilisi and the use of a family home on the Black Sea. When Levani Outchaneichvili (pronounced oo-cha-na-eesh-vi-li) walked into a restaurant with a passel of friends and visiting American actors--like Robert Duvall--the band played what he wanted and he picked up the dinner tab.

"He was the Kevin Costner of Georgia," said Ilene Kahn, the producer who cast the actor in a small role in the HBO film "Stalin," on location in Georgia.

But after that, Levani set his sights on Hollywood. With the $7,000 he made on "Stalin," he left his snug little world for L.A., gave away his worthless rubles at Los Angeles International Airport and set out to make himself a star here.

Fourteen months later, he is reduced to taking four hours a day of much-needed English lessons in Westwood, sharing a dreary one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood (equipped with a fax machine, though) with his versatile musician brother, Irakli, and sending his resume and picture around town.

His last name, which was familiar to Georgians and even a symbol of an acting elite--a late uncle was a respected stage actor--was unceremoniously dropped for the sake of casting directors. "In the time it took them to read the last name they would forget why they called me," he said dryly.

Now, he is, simply, Levani.


Among the legions of struggling actors, Levani is rather unusual--not only has he left one country for another, he has traded in a successful, comfortable life working in the very profession that here makes him hustle for an audition. But, like all the other acolytes at the altar of Hollywood, he came because it beckoned.

"Every actor, in my opinion, it doesn't matter where he was born, the dream is to go to America," said Levani, who has made about 35 movies and idolizes Charlie Chaplin. "The America of my dreams was Hollywood."

He has proven to be a quick student of the American way. In a matter of weeks, he got a driver's license. And since then, he has had two cars--an old Chrysler LeBaron convertible that clunked out on him and, now, a 10-year-old Mazda 626, an indefinite loan from a friend. Perhaps the most impressive thing he has done is to cultivate a wide network of friends here--Georgian, Russian, American, in the business and outside the business.

"He's come here and completely absorbed the culture," marveled Kahn, who runs her own independent production company, Odessa Pictures. She gave the Brothers Outchaneichvili her son's old Star Trek bedsheets and a portable stereo system she no longer used.


Levani loves his palm-lined quiet Hollywood street. "For me, you can see people who walk," he said as he passes a young man on the sidewalk with a snake draped around his shoulders. "In other places, you just see people's faces in a car."

He inhales movies: When he first got here, he saw four or five a week. Before he left Georgia, he taught himself to tap dance watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. Blessed with a stage actor's physical ease, he nimbly demonstrates in his soft-soled shoes.

"I love American movies from the 1930s, '40s, '50s," he said. " 'The Dance of the Rain'--you remember this movie?"

" 'Singing in the Rain'?"

" 'Singing in the Rain,' " he said, correcting himself. "The first time I saw it in Georgia, I thought: 'Why did my great-grandfather miss the ship to America?' "

In keeping with the "When in L.A., do as the Angelenos do" philosophy, Levani has quit smoking, become a vegetarian and joined a health club, where he lifts weights and practices martial arts. His green card was approved in April.

But he has yet to find any acting work. In fact, he has not worked at anything. He turned down some non-union extra work that Kahn found for him, which would have paid an admittedly paltry $40 for the day. "He said: 'For me it wouldn't be appropriate,' " Kahn recalled sympathetically.

Levani insists that Kahn was not serious when she mentioned the extra work. "It was like a joke," he said innocently.

There have been a few promising meetings--one with a casting director at the beginning of the summer for a movie that was briefly tied to Warren Beatty. "The casting director said he (Levani) was wonderful," said Kahn, who acts as a reference for Levani, who has no agent or manager. "She said she thought he was so interesting."

The project kind of dissolved, as do so many things in Hollywood.


But Levani is undaunted by his lack of success. Even the way he talks about it is distinctly L.A. "I'm between movies," he said, without a trace of drollness in his voice. "Nobody knows in L.A. exactly what happens the next day."

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