Akim Tamiroff was a versatile character actor of Armenian and Russian descent with a very thick accent. He was remarkable for many reasons. In his long film career he played Russians, Mexicans, French-Canadians, Arabs and any other ethnicity a script called for. The most remarkable thing of all? He never bothered to play any of those characters differently. They all sounded just like Akim Tamiroff. The man was so talented, you could be convinced he was French or Egyptian or Mexican - with a heavy Russian accent!
Tamiroff's acting career had him cross paths with an impressive roster of giants from the Russian theatre and American film. The only actor to work with Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, Tamiroff got his start at the Moscow Art Theatre School studying under Stanislavski shortly after the revolution. After graduating, he toured with a theatre troupe performing notable Russian plays. He starred in productions written by all the Russian giants: Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev and Gorky. In 1923, Tamiroff and the gang landed in New York to perform at Jolson's 59th Street Theatre. Tamiroff decided after the run to remain in America to try and make a go at acting in metropolis (the decision does not appear to have been political in any way). He worked on Broadway in various capacities for the next ten years. I'll spare you the boring details of this period and pick it up in 1936.
Tamiroff moved to Hollywood and acted in several B-movies with marginal lines for about four years. Tamiroff's ability to play various nationalities (all with a heavy Russian accent) had been fully established when he was signed to Paramount for his first studio contract in 1936. From 1932-1935 he had played Mexican bandits, gypsy fiddlers, Italian waiters, French jewellers and Indian royalty. He was regarded as a dependable and versatile bit player. In 1936 he graduated from bit player to a king among character actors. This was the year Paramount cast him as the nefarious Chinese General Yang in the Gary Cooper picture The General Died at Dawn. The film featured many unfortunate instances of that racist Hollywood staple known as "yellow face" - the act of white people portraying Asian characters. This role in turn would see Tamiroff become the first actor performing a yellow face role to be nominated for an Oscar (and the last actor to do it with a heavy Russian accent - a point I will continue to beat you over the head with). All racism aside, the film is an irresistible genre piece of moody cloak and dagger nineteen thirties Hollywood - perfect for "Late Show" viewing. Akim would not win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, however. The prize went to the other king of character actors, Walter Brennan, for his role as the lovable Swede in an Edward Arnold vehicle titled Come and Get It (1936).
The Oscar nomination led Tamiroff to bigger roles and higher billing. Many of the films he appeared in were similar to the old B's he was traditionally associated with, only with larger budgets. The Jungle Princess (1936) was such a picture. Tamiroff had third billing under stars Ray Milland and Dorothy Lamour in this stupid film about a beautiful damsel raised by "wild savages" from a young age. The erudite Milland just doesn't get it and tries his best with the assistance of Tamiroff to take Lamour away from the "primitive" lifestyle and back to "civilization." Ride a Crooked Mile (1938) was another second string picture that Paramount manufactured as a starring vehicle for Akim. It's notable for featuring two other character actors frequently used as all-purpose Russians, Nestor Paiva and Vladmir Sokoloff.
King of Chinatown (1939) had Tamiroff lending his yellow face make-up kit to Sidney Toler, as Tamiroff played a Russian character (with a heavy Russian accent) named Frank Baturin. The picture belonged to the legendary Anna May Wong, and just like Keye Luke's appearances in the Charlie Chan series, the presence of actual Asian actors juxtaposed with whities like Toler all doled up, made the yellow face phenomenon appear even more absurd.
Tamiroff appeared in his first of several pictures made by Cecil B. DeMille with The Buccaneer (1938). The two were thrown together simply because they were both under contract to Paramount, but eventually DeMille made a point of casting him on a regular basis. The film was an entertaining and typical bastardization of American history that featured Tamiroff as an Acadian character from New Orleans. DeMille next used our pudgy Russian in Union Pacific (1939). Another film sure to make Howard Zinn's hair stand on end, Union Pacific portrayed an undependable Native American population sabotaging the progress of society and reneging on their agreements with honest dependable white folk. The picture featured Tamiroff in one of his first roles as a comic-heavy - a rambunctious villain, dedicated to sadism, but often-falling flat on his face and looking foolish in his attempts.
The same year Tamiroff shared the screen with George Raft, Henry Fonda and John Barrymore in a ridiculously titled film about Alaskan fishing rights (oooh, riveting!). Featuring gruff fur traders, canoes, dog sleds and other northern cliches, Spawn of the North (1938) had Tamiroff as Red Skain, a "Russian fish pirate." Shortly thereafter, Akim appeared in a movie with a very similar feel. Cecil B. DeMille once again recruited Tamiroff, this time for the 1940 Gary Cooper vehicle, Northwest Mounted Police, a Hollywood bastardization of the Louis Riel debacle. The film was one of many "mountie westerns" that were churned out with great rapidity during the thirties and forties (my favorite remains one of the last contributions to the genre, the Republic serial Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders). Akim played the role of a nefarious French-Canadian fur trader named Duroc (which is the Russian word for idiot). The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (Popular Library, 1978), a book by Harry Medved (yes, brother of notorious right wing film critic and Rush Limbaugh guest host Michael Medved), features Northwest Mounted Police clocking in at number thirty. Tamiroff's performance is the only thing in the picture that doesn't get a scathing mention. However, Medved does single out this snippet of, as the book describes it, immortal dialogue:
[Akim Tamiroff] DUROC: We don' fail! Corbeau's got somezin' you never see no gun lahk that ... she squirt lahk ... lahk ze hurricane.
RIEL (slow and ominous): Blood will run like water.
CORRBEAU: Blood - you won't notice it much. The Mounted Police wear red coats.
Ray Milland starred as a doctor on vacation in yet another "mountie western" titled Untamed (1940). Tamiroff, again, played a French-Canadian fur trapper (with a Russian you know what). The posters for this Technicolor extravaganza set in the wilderness stated, "THEY FOUGHT THE WRATH OF THE SILENT NORTH... for the right to live!" And viewers fought to understand what the hell that was supposed to mean.
Tamiroff next performed what is generally regarded as his funniest role in Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty (1940). Akim plays Brian Donlevy's corrupt political boss and many the rumour claims it was this character that inspired the voice of Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle, done by Paul Frees. Why this particular role would be the basis for Badenov more than any other is unclear, but there is no question a great deal of Tamiroff is contained in Natasha Fatale's fat little spy. Watch a bit of the man in The Great McGinty here.
1942-43 was another significant period as he worked with DeMille again in a colorful comic book action film Reap the Wild Wind (1942). He was also loaned out to MGM to appear in Victor Fleming's interpretation of the heartfelt John Steinbeck novel Tortilla Flat (1942). Akim played Pablo, a loveable yet totally pathetic creature, a type Tamiroff had down pat by this point. He continued on, coincidentally, with the literary kick - obtaining a lead part in Ernest Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). Remarkably his character's name was, again, Pablo. The part would score Tamiroff his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, he lost to Charles Coburn for his obnoxious performance in the 1943 picture The More the Merrier.
1944 had Tamiroff revisit, as he did for the rest of his career, familiar parts. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek would be his second and final film with Preston Sturges, once again playing a character referred to as "The Boss." His part is basically an in-joke for anyone who had seen The Great McGinty. That film's star, Donlevy, also makes a cameo. '44 also showcased Tamiroff as Wu Lien in the yellow face epic The Dragon Seed. Walter Huston, Agnes Moorehead and Katharine Hepburn put on special prosthetics that studio make-up departments had perfected by this point to "Chinese-ize" a white star. Prosthetic eyepieces were cast using "real Asians" as models for the flexible molds (many Asian actors who were trying their best to break into racist Hollywood got their start as "eye models"). The eyepieces would then be applied with spirit gum to an Akim Tamiroff or Katharine Hepburn with make-up painted on to hide the rough edges. Rubber bands would then be attached to the top of the head to pull the corners of the eyes up(!!!). Meanwhile, prolific Asian bit players like Willie Fung would remain on the sidelines playing servants.
Tamiroff's meaty parts courtesy the likes of Sturges and Demille helped his star to rise, and Akim would make the occasional guest appearance on radio. Listen to a 1945 episode of The Dinah Shore Show with special guest star Akim Tamiroff here. After a few years of playing mobsters, henchmen and Russian princes in various westerns, musicals and film noir potboilers, Tamiroff appeared alongside a man he would be associated with for the rest of his career. Black Magic (1949) starred Orson Welles as a con-man and hypnotist in 18th century France. As is usually the case with any movie in which Welles appeared but did not direct, legend states that he directed many of the scenes. It was the start of a very long association for the two performers. Welles had previously met Tamiroff when Orson was working with Akim's brother in-law, Konstantin Shayne - another Russian actor "gone Hollywood," in The Stranger (1946). Welles and Tamiroff next worked together on screen in Mr. Arkadin (1955), a mediocre picture that Welles felt was Tamiroff's best performance. The two would team-up again soon.
In the meantime, Tamiroff acted in one of the all time great bad movies with a B-movie cast that was absolutely to die for. The Black Sleep (1956) starred a bevy of notable names past their prime, all lurking amidst dank dungeons and hideous deformed monsters. Joining Akim Tamiroff for the ride were John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Tor Johnson. The film's first half is slow but for fans of classic horror, the last twenty minutes are pure bliss. The ad copy for this film shouted, "Horror fans will come in their pants!" Just kidding. Tamiroff plays Odo the Gyspy in this one. Amazing to think he was appearing in this the same time the Oscar winning Anastasia (1956) was in the theatres (featuring Tamiroff, Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner). He was a thespian who could easily oscillate from the highest to the lowest brow without ever jeopardizing his credibility.
Tamiroff is probably best remembered for his role as the comic-heavy in the last of the film noir classics, Touch of Evil (1958). The slimy, seedy nature of his character is described by Susie Vargas (played by Janet Leigh) in the film "[you] ridiculous old fashioned jug eared lopsided little Caesar!" One behind-the-scenes anecdote places Tamiroff in an argument with Orson Welles over a particularly disgusting effect. Welles had the properties department track down a lamb's tongue, which was to be placed in Tamiroff's mouth for a death scene. Welles wanted it to look as if Tamiroff's tongue was popping out of his head as he died. Recalled Terry Nelson, the assistant director on the film, "When we [were ready] Welles had the prop man bring out a large tray with a dish towel. Off comes the dish towel, and it's an assortment of lambs' tongues - four or five inches long." When Orson saw Tamiroff instantly recoil at the sight, he tersely told him to hurry up and bite on one of the tongues so they could get started. Writer Wolf Mankowitz: "[Tamiroff] expressed the kind of despair in relation to being asked to do things by Orson one might adopt towards an irresistible destiny." As it turned out, the shot proved much too graphic to show on screen in the late fifties and Tamiroff's ordeal ended up being for nothing.
Peter Bogdonovich asked Orson about the legendary scene in which Welles' enormous character beats up, and nearly strangles Tamiroff to death.
WELLES: "... horrible scene ... and we felt awful when we were done with it."
BOGDONOVICH: "There was something vaguely sexual about it."
WELLES: "Yes. It was perverse and morbid. Tamiroff was great in it. When he looked at that gun, it was every [penis] in the world."
Tamiroff's career continued with constant guest appearances on various television shows, almost always playing some sort of degenerate. He starred in a starkly photographed episode of The Rifleman as a corrupt, French, New Orleans aristocrat trying to muscle Chuck Connors off his land. He showcased what he did best - playing a grotesque, overbearing nut - the kind of character that demands respect... even as marrow from a chicken drumstick drips all over his shirt.
He continued to be busy, showing up in the Rat Pack flick Ocean's Eleven (1960), Orson Welles' take on Kafka - The Trial (1962), Jean-Luc Godard's whimsical French New Wave nonsense Alphaville (1965) and the neglected Disney feature Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966). He went to Italy for a couple years and acted in the studio system over there for reasons that are none-too-clear. He also had much of his time used up acting, on and off for several years, on Orson Welles ill-fated Don Quixote project. Akim Tamiroff died on September 17th, 1972 (with a heavy Russian accent).