Screen and stage great Jan Tříska dies at 80

Jan Tříska, photo: CTK

Well-known in Czechoslovakia, Jan Tříska had to start all over again after his emigration to the US. But his career had a wonderful third act at home.

Jan Tříska as Igor Hnízdo in 'Obecná škola',  photo: Lucernafilm - Alfa
Jan Tříska was probably best loved by Czech audiences for the 1991 film Obecná škola, or The Elementary School, in which his turn as cane-wielding teacher Igor Hnízdo won him fresh popularity with audiences in his native country.

The Prague-born actor had come to recognition decades earlier for his stage work – he was the youngest actor at the National Theatre when he joined in 1959 – and roles in movies such as the hit fairy-tale Radúz and Mahulena.

Tříska also took part in courageous underground broadcasting from the Liberec studios of Czechoslovak Radio during the 1968 Soviet invasion, when he read defiant texts written by his good friend Václav Havel on air.

In 1977 the actor emigrated to North America. He recalled his tough beginnings there at a news conference in Prague earlier this year.

Jan Tříska,  photo: CTK
“When I left I thought I could speak English. But when I got to America I realised I couldn’t speak English at all. And I’m still working at it. In Canada I immediately did a film for which my English was good enough. Then, luckily, I got the main role in a theatre in New York. And I just studied and studied. I’m a relatively hard-working person.”

Among around four dozen films Tříska appeared in in the US were two by his compatriot Miloš Forman, Ragtime and The People vs. Larry Flint.

By the time of the latter he was frequently returning from the States to perform in the Czech Republic, winning a top domestic theatre prize for his work in the 2002 Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle.

Tříska was active to the last. At the age of 80 he was due to start work on a new film just this week and had at least one other Czech movie project lined up.

On Saturday Jan Tříska fell from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River.

Jan Tříska in 'Radúz and Mahulena',  photo: Czech Television
The exact circumstances of the fall remain shrouded in mystery, but police say that it appears to have been an accident rather than suicide.

Following his death on Monday at a Prague hospital many tributes were paid to Jan Tříska. Among them came this one, from actress Taťana Fischerová.

“For me he was composed of two people. One was before he emigrated. That one was full-blooded, temperamental, a bit mysterious, an incredibly powerful and distinctive actor and artist. The second, after emigration, was terribly conscientious and professional. Both sides were extremely admirable and attractive. I had extraordinary respect for him.”