• 17 November 1905
  •  St. Petersburg, Russian Empire [now Russia]

Mischa Auer


Mischa Auer, the American screen's supreme exponent of the "Mad Russian" stereotype so dear to Yankee hearts before and after World War II, was born Mischa Ounskowsky on November 17, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the grandson of violinist Leopold Auer, whose surname he took when he became a professional actor in the U.S. during the 1920s. Mischa's father, an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, died in the Russo-Japanese War while was he was still a baby, which wiped the family out financially. After the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Ounskowsky family disintegrated and Mischa became a "street Arab", living with homeless youths and barely scraping by in appalling poverty. He eventually was reunited with his mother, who had nursing experience and became a caregiver in the nascent Soviet Union. But V.I. Lenin's socialist dream wasn't for her, and she fled to Turkey with Mischa. In Constantinople Mischa's mother contracted typhus from the patients she was tending and died. The young boy had to dig a grave with his own hands to bury her. He then began wandering, and was in Italy when Leopold Auer, his mother's father, discovered his whereabouts. Subsequently, young Ounskowsky emigrated to the United States to join Auer, who lived in New York. Leopold encouraged his grandson to become a musician, and Mischa matriculated at New York City's Ethical Culture School to please his grandfather. He became an accomplished musician, able to play multiple instruments, including the violin and piano. However, young Mischa soon became smitten with acting and, through his grandfather's contacts, was able to turn professional in the 1920s. Mischa Auer made his Broadway debut on February 24, 1925, in a walk-on role as an elderly guest in the Actors Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen's "The Wild Duck", which starred Helen Chandler as Hedvig. He also appeared in the Actors Theatre's Broadway production of the play "Morals" in 1925 before continuing his his apprenticeship in small roles, including an appearance with the great Walter Hampden in "Cyrano de Bergerac". While acting, Mischa also performed as a musician. As an actor, he eventually caught on with Eva Le Gallienne's touring theatrical company before joining Bertha Kalich's company, which toured the provinces after Kalich -- a stalwart of the Yiddish theater -- made her last appearance as the eponymous "Magda" on Broadway in January and February 1926. Kalich cast Auer as Max in the touring production of "Magda". Director Frank Tuttle hired Auer for a role in the comedy Something Always Happens (1928) after he saw the Russian perform with the Bertha Kalich Company in Los Angeles. This led to a decade of screen work in many films, in which the tall, unusual-looking actor was typecast as a foreigner, often of a villainous bent as befitted the prejudices of the time, which were actively catered to by the movies. The films he appeared in, usually in small, uncredited parts, included Rasputin and the Empress (1932) with John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore; Viva Villa! (1934) with superstar Wallace Beery; and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), one of Gary Cooper's best early films. One year after signing a long-term contract with Universal, Auer broke through into the realm of featured character actors with his Academy Award-nominated turn as the fake nobleman/freeloader/gigolo Carlo in the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) over at Columbia in 1936. That was the first year that Oscars were awarded to supporting players, and although he lost to eventual three-time Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner Walter Brennan, it made him as a popular character actor. Auer -- the Mad Russian -- became a fixture in comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Of the role of Carlo, he said: "That one role made a comedian out of me. I haven't been anything else since. It's paid off very well. Do you wonder that I am flattered when people say I am mad?" He turned in a memorable appearance as the Russian ballet-master Boris Kolenkhov in Frank Capra's Oscar-winning classic You Can't Take It with You (1938) opposite Jean Arthur and Ann Miller. Other memorable parts in the "Golden Years of Hollywood" phase of his career came in the musical One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) in support of Deanna Durbin and as Boris Callahan, who touches off a cantina catfight between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel, in the classic Destry Rides Again (1939). After appearing in the musical comedy "The Lady Comes Across" in early 1942, a flop which lasted three performances, he toured with vaudeville before acting in the summer radio series "Mischa the Magnificent". In the radio show, he played a man writing his memoirs, but after the summer run he returned to the movies. The last play he appeared in on Broadway, "Lovely Me", opened on Christmas Day 1946 and closed 37 performances later, on January 25, 1947. Between movies, he appeared in touring shows and in vaudeville. During the 1950s, after the Paramount decision, when Hollywood first experienced runaway production as American producers turned to the cheaper European film studios to save money, Auer decamped for Europe. He and his family settled in Salzburg, Austria, where he made broadcasts for Radio Free Europe between appearances in European-made films, mostly in France. He achieved acclaim in Paris for his appearance in the title role of the 1953 revival of the comedy "Tovarich". On the Continent he was typecast as an elderly eccentric, most notably in Orson Welles's Confidential Report (1955). He also appeared frequently on American television during the 1950s. He was praised for his appearance in a 1953 Omnibus (1952) presentation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Arms and the Man". He suffered a heart attack in 1957 but continued to make movies in Europe and appear on television in the U.S. In 1964 he appeared as Baron Popoff in the New York Lincoln Center Music Theater's revival of "The Merry Widow". It was not a success, but the New York Times review praised him: "Mischa Auer is, after all, one of the great comics. With his head down a little, jowls flapping, his ripe Marsovian accent rolling through the house, his eyes popping--he dominates the performance." Suffering from cardiovascular disease, Auer suffered a second heart attack and died in Rome on March 5, 1967, at the age of 61. He will long be remembered as one of the inimitable character actors who graced the classic films of the Golden Age of Hollywood.