The year 2017 was marked the death of Jan Tříska, the popular film and theatre actor, who died after mysteriously falling from Charles bridge

Looking back at the forty years of Communism in Czechoslovakia, there were many illustrious artists who had previously fallen foul of the regime, but managed to make a comeback after 1989. Very few however, were capable of an artistic resurrection as impressive as that of the recently deceased actor Jan Tříska.

Having established himself as one of the best talents of the Czechoslovak theatre in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was subsequently forced into exile in the United States due to his friendship with Václav Havel, and for his seemingly “counter-revolutionary” positions, before finally becoming the protagonist of a triumphal return following the Velvet Revolution. To a certain extent his great popularity at home can be attributed to the 1991 film Obecná škola (Elementary School), his first Czech film after the 14 years spent overseas.

Yet for Tříska, who died on September the 25th, following a fall from the Charles Bridge in circumstances yet to be clarified, Obecná školamerely constituted a simple chapter of a life of drama and dissidence, divided between two opposing worlds.

Having been born in the Czechoslovakian capital in 1936, his artistic career began on the stage when after four years in DAMU (Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), in 1959 he became the youngest member of the actors of the repertory of Národní divadlo in Prague.

During his studies at the academy, he immediately became part of the cast of various notableplays such as Bílá nemoc (The White Disease, 1956-1957) by Karel Čapek, in which he had the role of assistant. He took little time, however, to make his mark also as an actor in Shakespearean roles like that of Edmund in King Lear (1961), and finally as the leading man in Romeo and Juliet. It was the period when the young Tříska managed to get himself known also through film and television roles, often in fairy tales like the highly popular Radúz a Mahulena (1970). However, they were also the years of Normalization, and the early sparks of friction with the new powers of the time
In 1966, Tříska became a member of the Divadlo za branou, founded by the director Otomar Krejča, the theatre legend who would later fall into ruin for his support of the Prague Spring, until he was banned from artistic activity in 1970, a year before the definitive closure of the Divadlo za branou. Krejča’s destiny also foreshadowed that of his disciple Tříska. Thanks to the international protests, Krejča managed to leave Czechoslovakia, to find refuge and resume activity as a theatre director in Germany, France and Italy, where he won the Pirandello theatre Prize.

Tříska would find himself amidst a storm during the tragic August of 1968, due to a radio broadcast from Liberec in which he commented on the arrival of Russian tanks in Prague, together with his friend and future head of state, Václav Havel. However, things got worse in 1977. By then considered an unwelcome presence, the actor tried to divert the negative attention by accepting a role in the series 30 případů majora Zemana, at the time very popular but now seen as propaganda of the communist party.

In one of his last interviews provided to magazine Reflex, he claimed to have been contacted by the StB, the secret police, but refused to cooperate. However, the rumours that bothered the authorities were those concerning his alleged sympathy for the civil dissent manifesto, the Charta 77. All this despite Tříska having signed the anti-Charta, the stance imposed by the regime on various artists.

After the tragic death of Tříska, this September, the actor, comedian and screenwriter Zdeněk Svěrák gave an interview to the political magazine Respekt about his first major work experience with his friend “Honza”, in Jiří Menzel’s comedy, Na samotě u lesa (1976). In the issue dedicated to the late actor titled “Český idol”, Svěrák tells us of how the production was halted for a few days precisely because Menzel refused to compromise on his choice of Tříska in the part of the doctor in the film, and that filming could only begin when the director received the approval from the authorities.

The actor portrayed by Svěrák, however, is one of a figure who showed reluctance to discuss his situation, but who did not hesitate to joke and mock the Czechoslovak politicians of the time despite the presence of “spies” on the set.

At the end of 1977, Tříska, having concluded that the situation in Czechoslovakia had deteriorated definitively, he decided to emigrate with his wife, actress Karla Chadimová, and his two sons. That was to emigrate, he assumed with never returning, given that the communists immediately classified him as a “counter-revolutionary, and criminal, a kidnapper of two children”, since the authorities of the time considered children as “property of the socialist state”. After a brief stay in Canada, the Tříska family arrived in the United States.

The initial difficulties with the English language did not prevent the Prague-born performer from conquering America, both in theatre and in cinema, where he could count on compatriot Miloš Forman for a role in Ragtime (1981). Small roles followed in several major films such as The Osterman Weekend (1983), directed by Sam Peckinpah, and 2010 – The Year We Make Contact, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For such a talented actor, these were minor roles, typically as KGB agents, spies, Russian doctors or scientists, but always played with great professionalism. His American career also continued in the 1990s with memorable performances in The People vs. Larry Flynt, (1996), directed again by Miloš Forman, and Ronin with Robert De Niro. The director of the second film, John Frankenheimer, chose the Bohemian actor personally, having been impressed by his excellent performance in the role of Henry Wirz, the Confederate Concentration Camp Commander, in his 1996 television film Andersonville, to the point of dubbing him the “Czech Laurence Olivier”.

However, the truth is that this much-loved performer could have ended up in collective oblivion if there had not been the event that marked the fate of Czechoslovakia: the Velvet Revolution and the end of the communist regime. On one hand, Tříska was proud of his new homeland and was now feeling American. Yet he could not resist Zdeněk Svěrák’s invitation to star in the film Obecná škola (Elementary School: 1991), which the latter wrote and was directed by his son Jan. As well as being one of the most successful Czechoslovakian films (an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film), Tříska, thanks to the masterly interpretation of his character, a teacher and alleged war hero, again became a celebrity in his homeland.

The regained affection displayed by the Czechs towards the expat continued in the new millennium with a series of excellent performances: Želary (2003: another Oscar nominee), Horem pádem (2004), and especially in the part of the Marquis de Sade in Šílení (Lunacy: 2005) directed by Jan Švankmajer.

The circumstances of his death, last September 25, are still shrouded in mystery, as there were no witnesses. One could think of it as suicide, even of the possibility that someone pushed him down, but the most convincing hypothesis is that of the tragic accident, for an actor enraptured by his city, who used to stop over and reflect on Charles Bridge, while drawing inspiration from it.

What is certain, is that despite his 80 years, Tříska was still going through a highly fruitful artistic period. The public had just seen him in Po strništi bos, the latest film from Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák. Two days after his death, the filming of Na střeše should have begun, in which he was to be the protagonist. The Kristián award given to him at the Febiofest in Prague for his contribution to world cinema dates back just to last March. Undoubtedly a just recognition, for a unique actor and national idol, which some have gone as far as referring to as a Czech Marlon Brando or James Dean.

by Lawrence Formisano