Two years later, after members of a punk band called the Plastic People of the Universe were arrested on charges of "disturbing the peace," Havel helped organize the signing of the so-called Charter 77 by writers, actors and various intellectuals demanding basic human and civic rights. That move triggered a revival of dissident activity after nearly a decade of repression so severe that almost no opposition had been visible.
In early 1989 Havel was jailed again for several months, but by November the Communist regime began to falter. A Nov. 17, 1989, student demonstration was crushed with brutal police measures that triggered a wave of public outrage. A few days later, Havel held a news conference in his living room to announce the formation of Civic Forum. It organized further huge protests and held talks with the crumbling Communist government, successfully persuading it to relinquish power.
During the decisive protests, crowds often shouted "Havel to the Castle," a reference to the presidential residence in Hradcany Castle, perched on a Prague hilltop. One of the Communist-dominated parliament's last acts was to agree to do just that, as it elected Havel president in December 1989.
Havel's political triumphs were still to be paired with one great defeat: his inability to keep Czechoslovakia united. He argued strenuously against the breakup and pushed hard for a nationwide referendum that most people believed would have shown support for maintaining a single country. But differences between the leading Czech and Slovak political parties over the pace of economic reforms, combined with festering Slovak resentment against Czech domination of the country, proved too much to overcome.
He resigned as president in July 1992. The country split on Jan. 1, 1993.
Critics later said that Havel bore some of the responsibility for the breakup because he had failed to take stronger action earlier in his presidency to address Slovak concerns.
Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic on Jan. 26, 1993. His popularity at home peaked in late 1996, when he underwent surgery for removal of a cancerous tumor and part of a lung, provoking a massive outpouring of sympathy.
But his luster was soon tarnished, in the eyes of some, when he emerged from the hospital in January 1997 to marry actress Dagmar Veskrnova. To many Czechs, she did not measure up to his widely admired first wife. The next year, he had two more brushes with death, from a ruptured colon and from pneumonia.
Havel, who quit smoking after his lung operation, was plagued during the later years of his presidency by repeated hospitalizations for lung infections, which often interfered with his official duties. Some critics felt he was no longer physically up to the job and was becoming isolated from ordinary people.
His loyal supporters argued that the new mood primarily reflected public disenchantment with all politicians after the turbulence of a decade of dramatic change.
Havel was philosophical about the criticism he faced toward the end of his time in office. "I have been so long at the head of state . . . and for so long I was an object of almost uncritical homage," he said. "This had to be broken eventually."
He remained an emblem for the world and a strong voice of modern Europe.
He also returned, in 2008, to the stage, debuting a new play that evoked personal struggles. Called "Leaving," it focuses on a leader grappling with an uncertain future as he leaves office. It won critical praise.
When the play was published, he was asked by an interviewer whether he wanted to be remembered as a politician or a playwright. "I would like to say," he said, "that [he] was a playwright who acted as a citizen, and thanks to that he later spent a part of his life in a political position."
PHOTOS: Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011
Holley is a former Times staff writer.