Akim Tamiroff: “Permit Me to Introducing Myself”

The name Akim Tamiroff (Hovakim Tamiryants, 1899-1972) ought to be much better known. Though there is some consolation in his indirect memory: many believe him to have been the inspiration for the character Boris Badenov in Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Though I’d certainly seen him in numerous classic movies, it was the films of Orson Welles (and Welles outspoken enthusiasm for the actor) that made me aware of the name, for he appears in Black Magic (1949), Mr. Arkadin (1955), A Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), and the unfinished Don Quixote (as Sancho Panza). I am astounded to discover that he’s NOT in Journey Into Fear (1943). Shouldn’t he be in Journey into Fear??? An ethnic Armenian from Russia, the hearty, swarthy Tamiroff played characters of many ethnic groups over the decades, Mexicans, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. If it’s East or South of Germany, he played it.

One reason that he ought to be known however is that he was one of the few Hollywood actors plugged directly into the source. At the age of 19 he joined the Moscow Art Theatre, where he studied and worked with Stanislavski himself. Most of the Method people in Hollywood had got their training at second or third hand. Maria Ouspenskaya is one of the few others I can think of who’d come from the MAT. (Stella Adler, though not really a Hollywood person, had managed to study at the feet of the master for a few weeks in Paris). Tamiroff had first come to New York with the Moscow Art Theatre’s triumphant 1923 U.S. visit, and then later returned with Nikita Balieff’s Chauve-Souris in 1927. He remained behind that time and got involved with the Theatre Guild.

In 1932 he married Russian Jewish actress Tamara Shayne (1902-83) and the two did a nightclub act that brought them to L.A. By 1932 he was getting bit roles in Hollywood, where he worked steadily over the decades. Along with Welles, his boosters included Preston Sturges, who cast him as “The Boss” in both The Great McGinty (1940) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Peter Ustinov, with whom he appeared in Romanoff and Juliet (1961) and Topkapi (1964). The long list of other classics he appeared in include Gabriel Over the White House (1933), Queen Christina (1933), Sadie McKee (1934), The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Merry Widow (1934), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Naughty Marietta (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), Union Pacific (1939). For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), Oceans 11 (1960), Lord Jim (1965), Alphaville (1965), and — wait for it — Disney’s Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966). His last films was the French-Italian-Israeli co-production The Death of a Jew (1969).

Shayne also appeared in films, often with her husband, though she is perhaps best remembered for playing Al Jolson’s mother in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949).

For more on show business history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.