Thanks to the Man from Moscow, Polish Actor Christopher Rozycki Spies Stardom in the West
Actor Christopher Rozycki, 41, plays Penkovsky in Man From Moscow, a three-part miniseries airing now on PBS (to be repeated on cable's A&E in August)—and he does it with humor and a humanity unprecedented for spies, or Russians, on TV. Though Rozycki, like 007, ogles any pretty pair of legs, this spy takes off his hat when he does it, and with his jittery eyes and sweaty jowls, he betrays Penkovsky's most un-Bondlike fears. In Rozycki's view, "Penkovsky was a kind of Jesus Christ for the Russian people. He believed in what he was doing." Money was not his motivation; he passed up offers from the CIA and British intelligence of political asylum and well-paying jobs. "Penkovsky felt he was attacking his government," Rozycki says, "for the sake of his country."
Rozycki himself is a man from a Soviet-bloc nation: Poland. Until 1978 he was a leading actor in the Stephan Egarcz Theater of Lodz. He had graduated from the famed State College of Theater and Film (Roman Polanski's alma mater). He left Poland not because of politics—this was before the rise and fall of Solidarity—but for money. In London on a visa, he lived with his mother (who'd moved there years before) and worked in construction so he could furnish his home back in Lodz. He had every intention of returning to Poland. But then he met a fellow Pole who'd lived in London for six years, an architect named Maria Ficenes. He taught her to drive, they fell in love and married. Because of her work designing hospitals, Maria had found it easy to obtain British citizenship, which meant that her new husband (who's still a Polish citizen) could stay in England as a resident alien.
He didn't speak a word of English. "They were difficult days," Rozycki says. "I had to sacrifice my acting career for the sake of my marriage." Says Maria, "It was rather sad and very depressing for him. But I didn't have time to feel sorry for Christopher, because I was sorry enough for myself. I had to be the breadwinner." After his construction work ended, Rozycki had trouble finding new jobs and was too proud to get welfare. Maria stopped work to have their son, Alexander, now 5, and for a while their income was a $5-a-week state child allowance.
A friend in Lodz and London, actress Lena Hardock, remembers the tough times. "Christopher was a successful actor in Poland and was comparatively well-off," she says. "He owned a car and bought an apartment. When he married and decided to stay in England it was a complete change for him. Suddenly he was poor, with very little chance of work. At times he became completely depressed. But he would try for any type of work. He smiled a lot but you could never really tell what he was feeling behind the smile."
Rozycki found odd jobs in London's Polish community, from sausage-making to skirt-pleating. And he tried to learn English, though not from Maria. "Learning English from your wife," he says with his big smile, "is like learning driving from your husband—divorce after two days!" So he bought language tapes and watched TV.
It was in his mother tongue that Rozycki got his first acting break in his adopted country. At London's active Polish theater he was spotted by a producer who cast him as a Russian in Sunset Is Our Bible, a play in the Oxford Festival. Though he didn't understand all his English lines, Rozycki learned them. His good reviews got him a few small roles, in Reds and in two British TV series.
Then Rozycki became the charming, entrepreneurial Russian trawlerman in the film Local Hero. "He's a natural actor," says director Bill Forsyth. "He understands that on occasion we communicate without words." Hardock recommended him for Man From Moscow, in which she plays a translator. ("It's the Polish mafia," she says, "we help each other.") Now he is getting more roles—again playing Russians, in a TV show and in the film Deceptions.
Rozycki still visits Poland. For the last two Christmases he has taken his wife and son to see his father, Zygmunt, a retired mechanic. "It is very sad to see the condition of my country," he says. "It is particularly bad for my father. If you are young and have a lot of friends you can get practically everything you need. But old people can't queue for a long time and don't have connections or money." He sends his father packages of food and small Western luxuries throughout the year. For all its troubles, Rozycki misses his homeland. "It is an absolutely marvelous country with beautiful beaches, better than anything in Greece or Spain, splendid mountains and wonderful people."
His greatest satisfaction in England is his childhood hobby, fishing. He plays tennis, too, at a club in his Wembley neighborhood. And under the supervision of his architect-wife (who just started her own real estate development company), he's refurbishing their sparsely furnished home.
Life in the West is different in many little ways. Rozycki admits to having consumed lots of vodka back in Poland. But now when he and his actor pals head to a pub, he finds a quiet corner and studies his lines. Except for special occasions, like the all-night Man From Moscow wrap party he threw, Rozycki doesn't drink anymore. It's hard enough, he says, to act—in any language—without a hangover.
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