Nationality: Russian. Born: Smolensk, Soviet Union (now Russia), 18 December 1921. Family: Son: Maksim Nikulin. Career: Clown in the Moscow Circus, from mid-1950s; director of Tsvetnoy Boulevard circus, Moscow, from mid-1980s. Died: Moscow, Russia, 21 August 1997, after heart operation.
Devushka s gitaroy ( A Girl with a Guitar ) (Aleksandr Fajntsimmer)
Nepoddayushchiyesya ( The Unamenables ) (Yuri Chulyukin and Yuli Raizman) (as Klyachkin)
Sovershenno seryozno ( Absolutely Seriously ) (Leonid Gaidai); Kogda derevya byli bol'shimi ( When the Trees Were Tall ) (Lev Kulidzhanov) (as Kuzma Kuzmich Iordanov); Drug moy Kolka ( My Friend, Kolka! ) (Aleksandr Mitta and Aleksei Saltykov); Samogonshchiki ( Bootleggers ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as Booby)
Bez strakha i upryoka ( No Fear, No Blame ) (Aleksandr Mitta); Molodo-zelyono ( Young-Green ) (Konstantin Voinov)
Delovye lyudi ( Business People ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as the Robber)
Dayte zhalobnuyu knigu ( Give Me the Complaints Book ) (Eldar Ryazanov) (as Booby); Ko mne, Mukhtar! ( Come Here, Mukhtar! ) (Semyon Tumanov) (as Glasychev)
Fantazyory ( Fantasizing ) (Isaak Magiton); Operatsiya Y i drugiye priklyucheniya Shurika ( Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as Booby)
Malen'kiy beglets ( Little Fugitive ) ( Chiisana tobosha ) (Eduard Bocharov and Teinosuke Kinugasa); Kavkazskaya plennitsa, ili Novye priklyucheniya Shurika ( Prisoner of the Caucasus, or Shurik's New Adventures ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as Booby)
Brilliantovaya ruka ( Diamond Arm ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as Semyon Gorbunkov); Novenkaya ( The Rookie ) (Pavel Lyubimov); Sem starikov i odna devushka ( Seven Old Men and a Girl ) (Yevgeni Karelov—for TV) (as Booby)
Andrei Rublyov ( Andrei Rublev ) (Andrei Tarkovsky) (as Monk Patrikey)
12 stulyev ( Twelve Chairs ) (Leonid Gaidai) (as Dvornik Tikhon); Stariki-razboiniki ( Old Men: Robbers ) (Eldar Ryazanov); Telegramma ( Telegram ) (Rolan Bykov)
Tochka, tochka, zapyataya. . . ( Point, Point, Comma. . . ) (Aleksandr Mitta)
Oni srazhalis za rodinu ( They Fought for the Motherland ) (Sergei Bondarchuk)
Priklyucheniya Travki ( The Adventures of Travka ) (Arkadi Kordon); Dnevnoy poyezd ( Daytime Train ) (TV) (Inessa Seleznyova); Dvadtsat dney bez voyny ( Twenty Days Without War ) (Alexei German) (as Lopatin)
Ne khochu byt vzroslym ( I Don't Want To Be an Adult ) (Yuri Chulyukin)
Chuchelo ( Scarecrow ) (Rolan Bykov)
Poludennyi vor ( Midday Thief ) (Viktor Turbin—for TV)
Kapitan Krokus ( Captain Crocus ) (Vladimir Onishchenko)
Donec, Ljudmila, "Ich sage nicht: Leb' wohl. . . ," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 23, no. 2–3, 1995.
Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt-am-Main), vol. 14, no. 10, October 1997.
Obituary in Classic Images (Muscatine, Illinois), no. 268, October 1997.
* * *
Yuri Nikulin was a leading Soviet circus clown who turned a great comic actor and who then went on to become one of the best dramatic actors of Russian cinema. While he retained a life-long commitment to the circus, he knew how to keep the fine balance between the foolish and the bittersweet elements in a cinematic comedy. The scope of his roles and his appearance make him somewhat comparable to French comedy star Fernandel.
Nikulin started his career in circus. For the cinema he debuted in a supporting role in the Lyudmilla Gurchenko vehicle Devushka s gitaroi (1958), a musical comedy, and then starred in a variety of supporting roles in a range of comedies in the early 1960s. It was around this time when one of his main cinematic personae, Booby, came into being. Nikulin appeared as Booby in a series of comedies he made throughout the decade.
His best comedy performances for the cinema were delivered under the direction of Leonid Gaidai. Their collaboration started with smaller roles for Nikulin, who came to the lead only for the comedy-hit Kavkazskaya plennitza (1966), a film which broke all popularity records at the time. A romantic screwball comedy set in the mountains of the Caucasus and revolving around the ancient mountaineer tradition of bride abduction, the humor of the film relied on jokes of the clash of cultures-type.
Gaidai and Nikulin's next comedy, however, Brilliantovaya ruka ( Diamond Arm , 1968) surpassed the success of Kavkazskaya plennitza and is believed to be the most popular Soviet comedy ever made. It is a comedy of errors, where Nikulin's protagonist Semyon Gorbunkov goes on a cruise, breaks his arm in an accident, and by mistake gets a cast filled up with stolen jewelry and diamonds. From there on the gangsters (played by Anatoliy Papanov and Andrei Mironov, both leading stars on the Soviet comedy scene) try to reclaim their jewels from the arm cast of the naive Gorbunkov. In both Kavkazskaya plennitza and Brilliantovaya ruka Nikulin performed songs by Alexander Zatsepin and Leonid Derbenyov which became classical favorites of Soviet popular music.
A particularly important artistic partnership for Nikulin was his collaboration with Anatoliy Papanov. They were first cast together in a fragment of the film Sovershenno Seriezno (1961) and in the short Samogonschiki (1961), and later on in Dayte zhalobnuyu knigu (1964) and in the musical comedy Sem starikov i odna devushka (1968). Their most popular partnership, however, was in Brilliantovaya ruka (1968).
Beyond his work for Gaidai, Nikulin was also acclaimed for his lead in Stariki-razbojniki (1971), yet another blockbuster by the team Emil Braginsky and Eldar Ryazanov, also starring other Soviet stars such as Yevgeni Yevstigneyev and Andrei Mironov. The story involves an aging detective who stages crimes he can then easily solve. In 1971 Nikulin also appeared in the small but important role of Dvornik Tikhon in one of the many adaptations of Ilf and Petrov's comedy blockbuster Twelve Chairs (1971, directed by Leonid Gaidai). Nikulin continued to play for the circus and in comedies for another twenty-five years. His last appearance was in the Ukrainian comedy adventure Captain Crokus (1994).
Simultaneously with his comedy roles, Nikulin appeared in dramas. One of his most memorable roles of this type was of the monk Patrikey in Andrei Tarkovsky's classical Andrei Rublyov (1969), the story of the Russian icon-painter, and believed to be one of the top masterpieces of world cinema.
In 1975 Nikulin was cast in Sergei Bondarchuk's war epic Oni srazhalis za rodinu (1975). The film, which was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, was based on the well-known war novel by Mikhail Sholokhov and featured an all-star cast including such leading names of Soviet cinema like Vasiliy Shukshin, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Nonna Mordyukova, Lidiya Fedoseyeva-Shukshina, and Innokenti Smoktunovsky. It was in another war-themed film, however, where Nikulin reached the widest appreciation for his dramatic acting. Aleksei German's Dvadtsat dney bez voyny ( Twenty Days Without War , 1976) was based on Konstantin Simonov's Lopatin's Notes , and it was Simonov himself who narrated the film. It is the simple and sad story of weary soldier Lopatin, who spends three weeks in Tashkent far from the trenches, falls in love with a woman he accidentally meets (Lyudmilla Gurchenko), and then has to return to fight in the war. Both lead actors deliver superb performances, and it is this film which brought Nikulin's dramatic talents to full recognition.
Nikulin was often asked to play in adventure or comedy films for and about children and adolescents. This line of his work culminated in Rolan Bykov's auteurist film Chuchelo ( Scarecrow , 1983). Bykov, an actor who occasionally wrote and directed, and who turned into a culture sponsor in post-communist times, shot Chuchelo in 1983. But the film was not released until several years later due to objections from the teachers' union. When finally released in 1986, this sensitive coming-of-age drama of adolescent cruelty, occasionally described as the Russian equivalent of Lord of Flies , became the most seen film of the year, a remarkable achievement provided this was the time when many other important perestroika films were released. The protagonist of Chuchelo is a thirteen-year-old Lena, nicknamed Scarecrow, played remarkably by a pale and fragile Kristina Orbakaite, daughter of the Russian pop singer Alla Pugacheva. A new arrival in a small Russian town, Lena only has her grandfather (Yuri Nikulin)—a harmless art-collector of extremely limited means—who often has to endure the disrespect of the townsfolk because of his elevated affection for local artwork. In her new environment, Lena is confronted by a cruel world of teenage power mechanics. Failing to play by the popularity rules, she is soon ostracized and bullied by her classmates. Soon thereafter, a heartbroken Lena and her grandfather, having donated his collection of ancestral artwork to an unappreciative city council, leave town. Nikulin delivers a memorable performance as the sensitive grandfather confronting the brutality of children in his subtle ways.
Nikulin's role in Chuchelo was his last high-profile cinematic appearance. Since the mid-1980s he worked primarily in the circus until his death after a heart operation in 1997.