The Golden Age of Czech Actors

Tracing the most respected actors of the 20th century

Much like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (and other members of the famed “Rat Pack”) are synonymous for many with the United States of America, the Czech Republic has numerous men which have left a permanent mark in the minds of the general public. Some have done so through their music, others through film, and many others through politics and other pursuits. One could look at countless numbers of significant personalities, but many would agree that those in the world of cinema stood out considerably due to the large amounts of viewers and the fact that film was in its golden days.

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Jan Werich: “The Smart Clown”

Jan Werich was born in 1905, and to this day is beloved by many Czechs, be it through plays, movies or his genius quotes, often full of satire, humor, humanity, intelligence and worldliness. Many will remember Jan Werich through his collaborations with Jiří Voskovec and composer Jaroslav Ježek. Their theater performances gained widespread fame; often dressing themselves as clowns, they were inspired to some extent by Dada, the movement of the absurd. His Fimfárum was a compilation of stories for small children, which to this day is among the most well-known children’s books. Perhaps even more than his plays and performances, Werich is known by the general public to this day for his numerous movies and fairytales, including Byl Jednou jeden král, Pekařův císař and Císařův pekař, in which he himself starred. His later works include Baron Prášil and many other memorable features, such as the Pan Tau series. He radiated joy and intelligence, while remaining worldly and down to earth. To the general public, his smooth talk and wittiness gained him the nickname “The Smart Clown.”

Vlasta Burian: “The King of Comedians”

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Vlasta Burian is one of the most famous Czech comedians and actors in cinema history, starring in countless films from 1909–1956. It would not be an overstatement to say that he made the films he starred in memorable and gave them that unique edge. His unique style of acting, humorous body movement, gestures, and facial expressions added to the overall image. Further, his squeaky voice, bulging eyes moving in erratic directions and his tall, thin figure further accentuated his roles. Be it in movies like Anton Špelec, ostrostřelec, Hrdinný kapitán Korkorán, Baron Prášil and others, Vlasta Burian gained an amazing following, which to this day meets little competition. Much of it could be attributed to his sharper sense of humor and jokes he laced most of his films with, often outside of the original script. Away from his acting and in his private life, Vlasta Burian has been branded as a very tough man, contrary to his acting. He was even accused of Nazi collaboration during WWII, barring him from acting for five years. Despite these setbacks and in the eyes of the general public, he was a true gentleman, a workaholic, and someone who will always hold a special place in Czechoslovak cinematic history.

Oldřich Nový: “The Gentleman”

Oldřich Nový could be considered the epitome of elegance and gentility. His smooth talk, elegant posture, and overall presentation in the films he played in gained him considerable respect coupled with an exceptional female following. He was in a way, the Czech Frank Sinatra. His unique voice and the beautiful female actors by his side have contributed to the fact that he is now considered as one of the finest actors from old school Czech cinema. Although he acted in countless films throughout his career, those which most associate most with his career would include, among others, Kristián, Hotel Modrá hvězda and Valentin Dobrotivý. From 1967-1971, he starred in the popular TV series Taková normální rodinka. Unfortunately, as he grew older, he drifted away from the public eye, avoiding the publicity and attention which, after so many years of acting, singing, and directing, he began to despise. As they say, fame often brings recognition, but takes away much more. If one Czech actor could be called the ‘gentleman of all gentlemen’, it would have to be Oldřich Nový.

Rudolf Hrušínský: “The Optimist”

Rudolf Hrušínský is considered by many to be one of the best actors to have walked the Czech lands. Born to a famous family of actors and acting from childhood, he initially tried to pursue a legal education, but did not succeed, eventually ending up with acting as his career choice. He was characterized by an extraordinary skill to make the public believe he exemplified the role he played. Some of the most famous movies that he played in would undoubtedly include Dobrý voják Švejk, Poslušně hlásím, Adéla ještě nevečeřela, Postřižiny, Slavnosti sněženek, Tajemství hradu v Karpatech, Vesničko má středisková and many others, which are now considered among the most famous Czech movies ever made. His roles often had a certain level of wittiness, while at the same time demonstrating an optimistic approach to life, which many to this day consider one of his characters’ strongest legacies. Following the Invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries in 1968, he was disallowed to from acting for some time. After 1989, he entered politics but left after two years, highly disillusioned. His last role was in 1993, and he passed away in 1994.

Miloš Kopecký: “The Elegant Baron”

Miloš Kopecký is someone who, despite his often negative roles, gained considerable stardom and became synonymous with many of the movies that he starred in. He went through a difficult life under the occupation during WWII due to being half-Jewish. His mother died in concentration camp, and that left him with manic-depressive disease for the rest of his life. He was married five times. This aside, he an amazing acting talent. He could play the positive and the negative with mastery. He was very elegant and had very strong facial features, which made his image memorable and his characters that much more unique. Among some of the most famous roles would include those in Pyšná princezna, Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera, Noc na Karlštejně, Zítra to roztočíme, drahoušku…, Baron Prášil, Adéla ještě nevečeřela, and many more, including the TV series Nemocnice na kraji města. Towards the end of his acting days, he starred in Tajemství hradu v Karpatech. He passed away in 1996.

Jaroslav Marvan: “The Grumpy Good Guy”

This list of the men belonging to what I refer to as the Golden Age would not be complete without the presence of Jaroslav Marvan. He began his acting career in 1925, following having worked as a postal officer and credit collector. His feeling of shame when collecting money from people lead him to seek a different life path. Throughout his intense and rich acting life, he starred in over 200 films, often with other stars mentioned in this article. It is almost impossible to note all of his most famous pieces, but perhaps it could be said that most Czechs will know Baron Prášil, Kristián, Dovolená s Andělem, Anděl na horách, Škola základ života and Cesta do hlubin študákovy duše. He also starred in the popular Czech serial Hříšní lidé města pražského and the unforgettable fairytale Šíleně smutná princezna, which to this day is considered one of the nicest ones ever filmed. He had a distinct style and has often been cast in roles of strict, serious men, that deep inside were actually very kind and compassionate. He often played grumpy characters and was surrounded by countless beautiful women in his roles. He had the talent for expressing true seriousness on one hand, and love and compassion on the other. 

Vladimír Menšík: “The Kind and Compassionate”

Vladimír Menšík,  along with the other actors already discussed in this article, deserves to be mentioned as he is associated with countless popular Czech films of the 20th century. He played a huge amount of varied roles, but perhaps the most remembered were those where he expressed his exemplary humor with a healthy level of Irony. His laugh was unforgettable, and to this day it is extremely recognizable. Perhaps one of the most memorable roles he has played would be in the film Jak utopit dr. Mráčka aneb Konec vodníků v Čechách, where he played a disillusioned vodník (water goblin) servant. He is also associated with the fairytale series Arabela, which to this day is repeatedly aired on Czech TV. Menšík suffered in terms of health (heavy asthma coupled with alcohol and smoking addictions) for considerable lenghts of time, passing away in 1988, the year he starred in his last film.

Many More

One could continue the list with stars such as Jiří Sovák, Josef Kemr, and others, but this would prove nearly impossible to complete. One thing many in our generations point out that it is very hard, if almost impossible to draw parallels with today’s role models and the ethical, moral, and professional men of the 20th century. Men who were brought up understanding the true values in life, and those who loved their professions more than they loved the money and fame that it brought them.

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