Soviet actor Savely Kramarov was a people's hero in Russia: a comedian who brought humanity to his signature role of a foolish lowlife criminal. He was also a deeply religious Jew — a fact that led him to abandon his stardom and seek freedom of expression in the United States.
American movie fans might remember him as a KGB agent in the movie "Moscow on the Hudson" with Robin Williams. He also appeared in television commercials and in the movies "2010" and "Love Affair."
But he never achieved the kind of stardom he'd enjoyed in Russia. There, subways would come to a halt as people clamored for his autograph. And once, a particularly delighted fan who had no paper insisted that Kramarov sign his shirt collar.
Last Sunday, family, friends and fans of the late actor gathered at the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma to witness the unveiling of a unique gravestone. As Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. recited Kaddish, around 150 guests crowded around the actor's grave to view a monument that included casts of Kramarov's comedy masks, scripts, make-up brushes and a framed photograph.
"This was a holy goofball," Langer said of Kramarov, who died in 1995. "Every time he came to Chabad House, he put a smile on people's faces."
"He played the role of a fool, but he was very intelligent," said Asya Pervushina, a Russian emigré who saw Kramarov perform in Russia and who attended the unveiling with Kramarov's cousin, Margarita Zalchina.
For former theatrical colleague Sonya Melnikova-La-vigne, whose Jewish refusenik theater group Kramarov joined in Moscow, the actor was "a good friend who was concerned about me even when he was sick."
After Kramarov "came out" as a Jew by joining Melnikova-La-vigne's group in the late '70s, he never forgot his Jewish heritage. Working in Hollywood as a character actor, he sent money to Russian Jewish orphans whenever he could, and twice turned down chances to act in lucrative television commercials because they were being shot on the Sabbath.
Viewers agreed that his gravestone, created by noted artist Mikhail Chemiakin, did justice to the great comic actor.
"It's a great sculpture, [and] the artist did a wonderful job," said actor Ilya Baskin, adding, "I just wish it could have waited another 20 years."
Natalia Siradze, Kramarov's widow, expressed happiness that her husband was "finally at peace," and that "the whole Russian community can come here to appreciate a beautiful monument." She was particularly thankful to Chemiakin for creating the monument at significant cost to himself.
Chemiakin said that in crafting the memorial, he strove to find a way to represent Kramarov's soul. He finally settled on comedy masks and a skull, he said, because Kramarov was "a comedian who changed masks all the time — and his last mask was death."
Chemiakin, who now resides in New York, knew Kramarov from the actor's films in Russia but didn't meet him until after both emigrated in 1981. They formed a bond when Kramarov saw Chemiakin's work in a New York gallery and invited the artist to work on a joint project.
The memorial's masks are taken from actual masks that Chemiakin and Kramarov hoped to use for a play about the carnival, something they both loved.
In transporting the heavy gravestone to San Francisco, Siradze enlisted the help of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. "This was not your standard mode of operation," said the council's Pnina Levermore. The sculpture was created in Russia, with finishing touches added in New York.
"Getting it here was a huge logistical problem," said Levermore.
The council also helped set up the Savely Kramarov Memorial Fund, which will promote Jewish culture and education among Soviet Jews. "Kramarov wanted to bring Jewish culture to Soviet Jews, and that's our mission, too," Levermore said.
She added that she was pleased that the unveiling afforded an opportunity "to let the broader community know about Kramarov's dedication to Judaism."