New documentary depicts actor Jiří Voskovec’s life in US

A new documentary that will premiere in Czech cinemas next week depicts the lesser known part of the life of the Czech-born actor Jiří (or George) Voskovec. In his homeland, he is best known as the co-founder and co-star of Prague’s pre-war avant-garde theatre troupe, the Liberated Theatre. Having spent the war in exile in New York, Jiří Voskovec again moved to the US after the 1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. The new film, entitled My Father George Voskovec, follows his daughter Gigi retracing her father’s life, from the difficult beginnings through his career on Broadway and in Hollywood, to his passing away in 1981, at the age of 76. Jan Richter saw the documentary and spoke to its director, Libuše Rudinská.

“It’s called My Father George Voskovec because we met George Voskovec’s daughter Gigi who was very involved in the filming. So we decided to centre the film around her; she tells the story of her father and she follows his steps.”

In the film, you show clips from many American films Jiří Voskovec appeared in alongside some big names of the industry – was he a successful actor in the US?

“He called himself a ‘half-star’. Unfortunately, his time is gone for Americans now; not many people remember him although he was famous to a certain degree at that time. He did a lot of television, and people knew him. Gigi told me that for example, he was once pulled over by a policeman at a crossroads and he asked for his signature. So he was well-known but I think the term ‘half-star’ is very accurate.”

Many people in the film talk about whether Jiří Voskovec was in fact happy in his new homeland. What is your impression?

“At the beginning, I though he was a very unhappy and miserable man. But after two years of following his life, I realized that his life was not as clear cut as that, that you could say happy or unhappy. His life was very colourful. Of course, the beginning of his life in the US was very challenging and he had to deal with many issues, like spending 11 months in internment at Ellis Island, the death of his wife, being a single father, having to pay for his wife’s medical treatment, and so on. So I think he was very sad at that time, and must have also been sad because he lost his country. But he was a fighter and never gave up. He was a very positive person, and I think he enjoyed life and people.”

Do you think he ever considered going back to Czechoslovakia?

“Never. He never thought of going back because he knew he would not be able to continue. He knew that already in 1946 when he and his partner on stage, Jan Werich, tried to revive their theatre group after the war. He gave up after one year, and went to work for UNESCO in France, and he decided he wanted to have a completely different life.”

Do you think Czechs generally don’t know much about his life in the US?

“I would say they don’t because after he left, there was silence about him. During communism, it was forbidden to talk about him as if he did not exist. For example, there was gossip about him that he married into money, that he completely forgot about Jan Werich, and so on. The authorities simply tried to make people forget about him.”