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Akim Tamiroff may have left more footprints in Los Angeles and its environs than any other Russian-born actor/director in Hollywood. There are numerous addresses for him, and many of the houses he lived in still stand. He has a star just off of Hollywood Boulvard, and, since he was involved with Michael Chekhov, he can be attached to several more addresses around town.
Our first post, among what may end up being many, demonstrates the home where Tamiroff lived for some time in the 1940s. The address is 629 North Alta Drive in Beverly Hills. We know he could not have lived here any earlier than the summer of 1941, when he was still resident at 515 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills. (He was there from at least 1938 to 1941). I can’t find the dates when he moved into the N. Alta Dr. property, but he lived here when he registered to vote in 1946. Further, we know that he moved to Palm Springs at some time in the 1950s – I don’t have a specific date for that move. So, for conversation’s sake, let’s call this place on North Alta Tamiroff’s home for the better part of the 1940s.
As any source will tell you, Tamiroff was not Russian, but was of Armenian descent. He was born in 1899 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia, which was a territory of the Russian empire at that time. His full first name was Hovakim and his proper last name was Tamirov, transliterated with the two ffs back in the day in order to approximate the soft Russian “v” at the end of a word or name. But Tamiroff’s Russian connections were significant, if brief, and so we are happy to claim him in the constellation of Russian culture.
The fact is that he traveled to Moscow around 1918 or 1919 to study at the Moscow Art Theater. That, in itself, is a sign of character and fortitude. Russia was struggling at the peak years of its Civil War at that time and, I would guess, more people were trying to leave Moscow than to come there. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was admitted into the troupe of the Moscow Art Theater in 1920 (trust this date from the Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, rather than other dates you may find on the net). He was a member of the Art Theater’s traveling troupe that was such a sensation in the United States in the early 1920s. When the Art Theater went back to Moscow in 1924, Tamiroff remained behind. In his four-year Art Theater career, Tamiroff played numerous important, secondary roles in top productions – The Inspector General, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Blue Bird, Enough Simplicity in Every Wiseman, The Brothers Karamazov and others. At first in New York he worked for Nikita Balieff’s famous Bat Cabaret, later opening his own make-up studio. The Art Theater encyclopedia tells us that Katherine Hepburn was among his students there. He also embarked on an admirable career acting in New York, sometimes on Broadway.
Curiously – because he spoke with an extremely thick Russian accent – he moved to Hollywood in 1932 precisely when films went talkie. His accent served him well as he played all kinds of colorful foreigners throughout his career.
Tamiroff was in such demand as an expressive character actor in the heydays of the Hollywood studios, that he participated in over 60 films in just his first few years on the West Coast. This was good, of course, because it meant steady work and pay. It also apparently frustrated the actor. According to legend, he is the unnamed actor who complained to the famous Russian writers Ilf and Petrov that he could only get parts playing Mexicans. They quoted him saying that in their popular travelogue, Single-Storied America (material gathered 1935-36; published in Russian in 1937). Indeed, according to the IMDB film website, Tamiroff’s first ten roles in the cinema were so small that they went uncredited. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was twice nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Role, Male, category. This was in 1936 for the title role in The General Died at Dawn, and in 1943, for For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The actors and directors he performed with and for comprise a who’s-who of Hollywood in those years. Directors included Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric von Stroheim, Michael Curtiz, William Wyler, Charles Vidor and others. He worked with virtually every major actor of the age, including Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, and I’m just skimming as I run rough-shod over an astonishing list. He was something of a favorite of Orson Welles, playing in four of that master’s late films, including the role of Sancho Panza in Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote.
Most of this post consists of things I have cherry-picked from the internet, but at the end I can offer up a tidbit that you probably can’t find anywhere else. When I was doing research on the L.A. addresses, Lisa Dalton of the Michael Chekhov Theater Institute responded to my cry for help by tossing off a nice little phrase, which I quote here in full: “Akim Tamiroff hosted regular soirees and classes for Mr. C which is where Mala [Powers], [Anthony] Quinn and the Bridges [as in Lloyd and his wife Dorothy] worked with him.” So, it would appear that Tamiroff – who would have known Michael Chekhov as a great actor in Moscow – was one of those people in the “Russian mafia in Hollywood” to help provide Chekhov a foothold in Tinsletown.