Bolshoi Dancer, Actor Alexander Godunov Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alexander Godunov, the lithe dancer with the long flaxen hair and a brooding manner who created an international stir when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1979, was found dead Thursday.

Paramedics called to his Shoreham Drive home in West Hollywood found him about noon, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Bob Minutello.

Godunov was 45.

Minutello said Godunov's physician, Dr. Maurice Levy, would list the death as natural causes. Levy declined to comment on his patient's death.

"I apologize, I am not allowed to release any information," Levy said.

Godunov had been living in Los Angeles for several years pursuing a relatively uneventful film career. He had also been teaching sporadically at the Lichine Ballet Academy in Beverly Hills.

Before he fled to America, Godunov had been a premier danseur with the Bolshoi Ballet since he was 19.

His mother, he told The Times in a 1991 interview, had taken him to the Bolshoi school when he was 9. He was one of 13 applicants selected for training from a group of 250.

Although most young dancers start out in small roles, Godunov was 19 when he was selected to dance the prince in "Swan Lake."

That kind of good fortune lasted when he arrived in New York, where he joined the American Ballet Theater.

Godunov was touring the United States with the Bolshoi when he made worldwide news by requesting political asylum, saying that he felt artistically restrained in his homeland.

He proved a prime crowd-pleaser with the American Ballet Theater, but he and director Mikhail Baryshnikov, another Soviet defector, clashed and he was fired in 1982. He said that his old friend had "thrown me away like a potato peel."

The firing only briefly slowed his American career. He became a guest artist with several companies and starred in his own PBS TV show, "Godunov: The World to Dance In" in 1983.

It was after his dance career ended that his film career began, but it was never as successful.

His first picture was "Witness," a 1985 Harrison Ford thriller in which he portrayed an Amish farmer. His other movie roles included a supercilious conductor in "The Money Pit" with Tom Hanks, a psychotic killer opposite Bruce Willis in "Die Hard" and a madman in "Waxwork II."

He abandoned his dance career to concentrate on films, telling his then-companion, actress Jacqueline Bisset, after a concert, "You saw my last performance."

He said he enjoyed performing but hated the constant practicing it required.

If dancing was his oeuvre , pictures proved his nemesis.

He determined that he was not going to appear in films as a dancer or as a character influenced by dance. But his Bolshoi theatricality did not fit the roles offered him.

He had trouble with agents who objected to his often imperious airs, which he attributed to the elevated status dancers enjoy in Russia.

However, he reportedly was making another movie, this one in Budapest, shortly before his death.

Godunov compared the disappointments of acting with the surety of dancing.

"You may not be a star, but you can work anywhere," he told The Times.

"But in acting, wherever you go . . . especially Los Angeles, almost everyone is an actor. . . . The bottom line is that you are an actor waiting for a job. Meaning the doors are open to anyone. Doesn't mean you will get through."

He became an American citizen in 1987, saying he planned to celebrate with "a hamburger stuffed with caviar."

Godunov's defection involved more than average dramatics.

Flashbulbs were blazing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in August, 1979, when he announced his desire to stay in America and pleaded with his wife, Bolshoi soloist Ludmila Vlasova, to join him.

U.S. officials grounded her plane for 73 hours but she refused. It was his only marriage, and they had no children. They divorced in 1982.

Madama Tatiana Riabouchinska-Lichine, said that Godunov was vastly misunderstood, often by those closest to him.

"He is naive, rather than perverse," she said of her friend, who was in apparent good health when she last saw him three days before his death.

"He is very simple," she said in the 1991 interview of the dancer she called "Sasha." "He plays with the children" at the academy.

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