Deeming Defection the Better Part of Valor, the 'Soviet Robert Redford' Takes the Plunge
Lolling around at the sumptuous Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Oleg Vidov is talking about his escape from the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the scream of a police siren drowns him out, but he doesn't seem to mind. He cocks his head to listen, then sighs happily. "I still can't believe I'm really here," he says. "I am very, very lucky."
On August 28 Vidov became the first major Soviet film star to defect to the United States, and now, a week later, he is still shocked to find himself sitting at that center of capitalist decadence, Hollywood. From suite 711, he gazes down upon Rodeo Drive, fabled boulevard of Gucci and glitz. "It's so beautiful here and everyone seems so happy," he says. "I have been reborn. When the press asks how old I am, I will say, 'I am one week old!' My life in America will be my second life!"
Vidov's second life looks very nice indeed—in addition to Rodeo Drive, he has already sampled the pleasures of Palm Springs—but his first life wasn't so terrible either. He was never forced to cool his heels in Siberia. Quite the contrary. In the Soviet Union, Vidov was a star, "the Robert Redford of the Soviet cinema," as American film professor Albert Johnson once dubbed him. For 20 years Vidov, who will say only that he is in his "late 30s," was his country's leading leading man, star of more than 20 movies, including Headless Horseman, the top grossing film in Soviet history. He had money and fame and even groupies, or what pass for groupies in the U.S.S.R. "The women in Russia do not respond as enthusiastically to film stars as they do here in America," he says, "but the interest is definitely there. It's just suppressed, like everything else in Russia."
It was that atmosphere of subtle suppression, says Vidov, that ultimately drove him into exile. Even for a movie star, Soviet life is stifling. Studios are run by the state, film still serves ideology, and a movie's message is still more important than its characters. "American films are about people and about relationships between people," he says. "Russian films portray people—individuals—as insignificant parts of historical progression." For years Vidov longed to work in the comparative freedom of Western cinema, but when such famous directors as Federico Fellini and Franco Zeffirelli tried to hire him, Soviet film commissars nixed the deal. Then, in 1978, Vidov directed a 20-minute movie that dramatized the shortcomings of Soviet transportation. "I saw it as a metaphor for the Russian government," he says. Government bureaucrats saw it the same way, and Vidov's career was placed on terminal hold. "When the film board began to punish me for my ideas, I knew I had to go," he says. "The film committee was breaking my spirit. They were trying to destroy my desire to work, to produce."
In 1983 Vidov was granted permission to live in Yugoslavia. His first marriage had ended in divorce in 1980, and he left his homeland and his only child, a son. Then, in 1984, in an effort to extend his stay outside the Soviet Union, the actor arranged a marriage of convenience with a Yugoslav woman. The marriage foundered and the tactic failed: In May 1985 the Soviets suddenly ordered him to return home within 72 hours. Quickly, with the help of a friend, he obtained a temporary visa to Austria. As the two men approached the border, Vidov was nervous, worried that the Yugoslav guards would recognize him and check his visa with the Soviet embassy. But he got lucky. "When we reached the border," he says, "it was evening and the guards were busy watching a televised soccer match in the guards' booth. They just waved our car right on through. That soccer match is what freed me."
Vidov's friend drove him through Austria and on to Rome, dropping him at the home of actor Richard Harrison. Harrison contacted his friend John Frederick, who once worked with Ronald Reagan on the TV show Death Valley Days. Frederick called his old colleague at the White House and left a message about Vidov's plight. Suddenly, things started to fall into place. "We were having trouble getting Oleg out of Italy," Frederick recalls. "They said the process could take seven to nine months. All of a sudden, after I left a message for Mr. Reagan, Oleg was on his way to America in a few weeks."
Sure enough, Vidov was soon enjoying the pleasures of Los Angeles and reflecting on the friends and family he had left behind. "They know in their hearts why I made this serious step," he says. The Soviet government, he suspects, will be less open-minded. "They will scratch my name from the books. My posters will come down. It is easier for them to forget me than to explain to the people why I left. But I refuse to be forgotten."
Vidov is doing his best to dodge oblivion here. He already has an influential agent, a top publicist and the possibility of a major role in Zeffirelli's next film. "Oleg is a great actor," says the director. "I've seen many of his films and I admire his work. There is a sensual quality about Oleg. With all due respect to Bob Redford, Oleg is much more sexy."
Zeffirelli sees only one potential problem for the émigré actor: "Now he must act in a foreign language, and that is not easy." Vidov is confident. "It will be a challenge, but a challenge I can handle," he says. "I'm doing better already."
Indeed he is. As he speaks, in English, the phone rings in his hotel suite. The front desk is calling to say that a limousine awaits him. The limo is black and longer than a May Day parade. It ferries him to a TV studio for an interview. While he waits to go on, he glances out a window and spies the famous Hollywood sign in the hills above. "This is it," he says, smiling. "This is Hollywood." After the interview, the limo eases him down Sunset Boulevard, past a 50-foot-high billboard of Jennifer Beals in The Bride. "This is amazing," he says, "just amazing." The limo deposits him at Trumps, the trendy eatery. The maître d' recognizes Vidov, escorts him to the best table and says, "Welcome to America." After dinner the limo whisks him back to the Beverly Wilshire. Upstairs, in his suite, he calls the front desk for his messages. He listens politely then hangs up, looking a trifle perplexed. "Who," he asks, "is Rona Barrett?"
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