'Moonstruck' Actor Casts a Long Shadow of Experience From Rome

Times Staff Writer

There is much history--and one very recent memento--in the small apartment Feodor Chaliapin bought long ago when he became a refugee from Hollywood.

Atop a blocky old television set, in a silver frame too young to have tarnished, sits the black-and-white photograph of a pensive woman. Perhaps she is at prayer or newly in love.

"Feodor, My Dearest," the inscription reads, "I love you." It is signed "Cher."

The new photo contrasts dramatically with older ones hanging from the stained walls. They show a costumed Feodor Ivan Chaliapin, his father, a fierce Russian bass who passed into history a half century ago as one of opera's greatest voices.

Chaliapin does not comment on the striking juxtaposition between the images of Cher, his celluloid granddaughter, and his real father. He doesn't have to. He's been an actor for 60 years.

At 82, Feodor Chaliapin's mind is as quick as his face is mobile, as his white eyebrows are untrammeled.

"Cher. I didn't realize she was so famous. In Italy, nobody knows her yet," he said over a crooked bow tie. "She is such a sweet person. After half an hour, you think you've known her for 20 years."

He has known her longer than that in the new romantic comedy "Moonstruck." He plays an immigrant Brooklyn patriarch, walking his five dogs daily. Cher plays his granddaughter, a lonely young widow. The movie received five Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., and several performers are being touted for Oscar nominations.

Chaliapin pronounced himself bemused by the movie's critical acclaim.

"They thought the movie was terrific?" he said. "My God! The story is so naive. It is almost a satire, ridiculing human emotions, even love. You could have cast it in Venetian costumes, a Goldoni comedy." (Carlo Goldoni's 18th-Century Venetian street comedies are still staged in Italy.)

Chaliapin liked his own part: "Simple dialogue. No monologues."

He liked his scenes with Cher's movie mother, actress Olympia Dukakis. "She was wonderful," he said. "In our dialogue, she had such a nasty way of talking to me."

He liked the company and the skill of director Norman Jewison. "He's a director free of cliches, a director who improvises to improve," he said. "One scene was in a square in Brooklyn. When we got there, we found a sign on the gate saying 'No Dogs Admitted.' Norman left it there and used it. I kick open the gate with my foot and take the five dogs in."

What Chaliapin cherishes most of all about "Moonstruck" was working in New York for the first time. "New York is very different than Hollywood, and better. It is more like theater, less unionized than the Hollywood I remember. In 'Moonstruck,' there was lots of improvisation, ad-libbing. In my days, Hollywood was intolerant. You couldn't change a line."

Smoking dark cigarettes in unending procession, Chaliapin stroked a bulldog called Bulka.

"I'm a refugee from Hollywood," he said. "When TV came in the '50s, there was panic. Instead of working with a new medium, they made war on it and lost. Everybody left. The American actors went to New York, and the rest of us came to Europe. At first, I went to Yugoslavia, where a director friend promised me a part if I'd pay my own way. For nearly 30 years, I have lived here in Rome."

Moscow-born, the polyglot Chaliapin has stood in front of many cameras since his Hollywood debut in a '20s silent epic with fellow extra Joan Crawford. He smiles through the smoke: "Twice have I reigned as doge of Venice."

Since "Moonstruck," he has done two Italian productions. He played a dying monk babbling about sex in one film, and the father of a dissolute 15th-Century Venetian nobleman in another. This was yeoman service in roles less prominent than his performance as the fiendish monk villain in "The Name of the Rose."

"Luck is important. (John) Huston was supposed to do the villain, and I was signed for something else. But he was too sick. It was an easy part: I played (Ayatollah) Khomeini."

At home, Chaliapin is slowly assembling memorabilia from his father's long and distinguished career for presentation to a theatrical museum in Moscow: "The Russians have rehabilitated him."

Outside, on Roman streets where the sights, sounds and people are kissing kin to those in the Brooklyn of "Moonstruck," Chaliapin gives the best performances of his life. No lights, no cameras, pure pathos as he violates traffic laws and pretends innocent ignorance.

"For the traffic policemen of Rome, I play the perfect idiot," he said. "Why not? Who wants to pay a fine?"

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