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Lila Kedrova; Won Oscar, Tony for 'Zorba the Greek'

April 21, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lila Kedrova, the Russian-born actress who was indelibly identified with the role of Madame Hortense in the film and stage versions of "Zorba the Greek," died Feb. 16 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Believed to be about 82, the actress suffered from congestive heart failure and Alzheimer's disease in her later years. Her death was announced in Canadian newspapers but not by other news agencies until this week.

Kedrova won an Oscar, a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of the aging French prostitute in the stage and screen productions based on the 1946 Nikos Kazantzakis novel "Zorba the Greek."

She was hired to replace Simone Signoret in the 1964 movie, in which Anthony Quinn played the title role. She gained the role after lying to director Michael Cacoyannis that she could speak English. But she was never happy with her performance and thought she had made a terrible mistake by taking the part.

"I dislike it so much that I cried," she told The Times many years after the movie was made. "I see somebody oldish, ugly, terrible looking, fat, with this terrible hair--and bad acting. I cried the whole night, saying to myself . . . never, never I will do any other movie--maybe not even theater. My career is finished."

But she was wrong. In 1983 she re-created the role on Broadway with co-star Quinn and toured with the road company for several years.

"There simply is no putting up a defense when confronted by this Madame Hortense--a cockeyed bundle of vulnerability and spunk, teetering on spike heels, speaking breakable English. . . . [We're] undone on the spot," Times drama critic Sylvie Drake wrote in 1986 when "Zorba" came to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Kedrova was born in Leningrad about 1918 but escaped with her family to Paris sometime during Stalin's reign, about 1930. Her family expected her to become a pianist, but the young Lila (pronounced Leela) had other ideas.

One day, when she was supposed to take the train from her home on the outskirts of Paris to her Russian school in the city, she spied a gypsy caravan. Intrigued by their colorful costumes, singing and dancing, she jumped from the train and planned to stay with them, but the gendarmes took her home. Undeterred by her brush with the law, she later took days off from school to perform with a traveling circus.

Finally, when she was barely 14, she joined a troupe of expatriate Russian actors and disciples of Stanislavsky, who had immigrated to Paris. She invited the entire troupe to her parents' house for lunch in an effort to win their approval. Although her parents forbade her to join them, she fled with the actors to Brussels.

Her mother followed her and bought a front-row ticket for the show the young Kedrova was to perform in. "I had a lovely part and I played it beautifully," Kedrova told an interviewer many years ago. "And [my mother] came backstage after and said, 'Yes, Lila, you can be an actress.' "

She went on to a thriving career on the stage. She also made about 70 movies, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" and Lee Grant's "Tell Me a Riddle."

But it was the role of the pathetic, fragile Madame Hortense that won the hearts of an international audience.

"Many people come to me and say, 'Your performance changed my life,' " she told the Washington Post in 1984 when she was touring with "Zorba." "And I think, 'How did I do that? With what?' And I do not have answer. Why should Madame Hortense bring such joy to people so they laugh and they cry? This I do not understand. 'Zorba' is not 'The Cherry Orchard.' . . . Maybe I stir some kind of very important feelings in the soul of people without willing it."

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