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Folks in the western hemisphere know him as Michael Chekhov. His fame at home in Russia is still so strong that he will always be known there by his given name of Mikhail. Michael or Mikhail, this nephew of Anton Chekhov remains one of the most revered figures of Russian theater 60 years after he died in Beverly Hills, CA. To this day his book To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting remains one of the most popular how-to books among actors the world over. Many performers consider his advice to be more practical and useful than Stanislavsky’s, and Stanislavsky himself once said that Chekhov embodied all the theories and exercises that he had developed up to a certain point.
Chekhov was born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, the son of playwright Chekhov’s older brother Alexander. It was a family full of drama. Alexander never married his first wife Anna, a woman who loved vodka as much as he did and who was eight years older than he. After her death, Alexander married the governess of his two children and it was she, Natalya, who gave birth to Mikhail, named for the youngest of the Chekhov brothers. Alexander was a talented man, a published writer, but his status as the “brother of Anton” was a burden he could not bear. By some accounts, he recognized that his youngest son Mikhail was unique, but never found great love in his heart for him. When little Misha was four years old, Alexander reportedly said of him: “His eyes sparkle with nervousness. I think he will be a talented person.” (I pull this quote and some tales from Yelena Gushanskaya’s article about Alexander in Neva magazine in 2011.)
Mikhail studied acting in St. Petersburg and in 1912 was invited to join the Moscow Art Theater. The following year he began to work with Yevgeny Vakhtangov in the famous Art Theater First Studio. He wrote his name permanently into Russian theater history in 1921 when he delivered a legendary performance of Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. It was his first major role there after having played several small parts, including that of Yepikhodov and Waffles in his uncle’s plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, respectively. The success of his performance of Khlestakov led to him being named the director of the Second Moscow Art Theater, originally intended as an experimental version of the mothership. He played several memorable roles there – including Hamlet (1924) and Apollon in a famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1925 at the Second Moscow Art Theater).
However, as life, politics and art became increasingly difficult and dangerous activities in the Soviet Union, Chekhov followed the lead of many others in his era: He left the Soviet Union in 1928, moving through continental Europe on to England and, eventually, the United States, where he worked first on the East Coast and then achieved a certain insider’s fame in Hollywood as Michael Chekhov, the coach to the stars.
The house seen in these pictures is located at 1310 San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. This is where Chekhov settled in to live and this is where he resided at the time of his death in 1955. It is a relatively modest, but very cozy and attractive, home. It looks across the street at one of those steep, earthen cliffs so common in the hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
While living here Chekhov became Hollywood’s favorite acting coach. Together with his great friend George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov) he ran his acting laboratory and staged shows at the Las Palmas Theater (expect a post about that in the near future). The number of the great and famous who worshipped Chekhov for his guidance was enormous. It included Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others. Chekhov himself did some acting in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchckock’s Spellbound (1945). You can see the entire film on YouTube (with French subtitles, even). But if you want to know my opinion, the film to see Chekhov in is The Man from the Restaurant, a silent from 1927 by the great Russian director Yakov Protazanov. Chekhov is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon waiter in a hifalutin eatery.
It took a village for me to find the exact location of Chekhov’s last home, although once things began coming together, they did so quickly. Various roles were played by Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, and Jessica Cerullo, a pedagogue with the Michael Chekhov Association, both of whom sent me leads. I finally nailed the address down when I happened upon an internet publication of a July 18, 1950, letter from Chekhov to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in regards to help the actor was soliciting for his friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny. It’s quite a story, actually. Let me turn the gist of it over to Chekhov himself in this excerpt from the published letter:
“…I appeal to you almost in despair. My old, good and dear friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny lives in Paris. He is handicapped – his legs have been paralyzed since childhood. When Hitler entered Paris, Bessmertny, as a Jew, had to escape. He then had a three-wheeled motorized invalid chair with hand controls. When I worked and I had money I helped him, but I now am helpless myself – my health is gone, I have no work, and my friend Bessmertny is begging me for help. He needs to buy a motorized chair and it costs $300. Vladimir Semyonovich [sic: Horowitz’s patronymic was Samoilovich], I am tormentedly ashamed, but I see no other way out of this, although I’ve thought a great deal. A few days ago I awoke with the thought: perhaps Vladimir Semyonovich might want to help! Forgive me for God’s sake, but it is so hard for me to think about my friend’s inescapable plight! If you would like to help, dear Vladimir Semyonovich, then here is my address:
Mr. Michael Chekhkov
1310 San Ysidro Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yours ever and ever,