Janusz Gajos photographed by Marek Dusza
Actor. Born in 1939 in Dąbrowa Górnicza. While he was working at the Puppet Theatre in Bedzin, under its famous director Jan Dorman, he applied to acting school four times.
He graduated from the Theatre and Film Academy in Łódź in 1965 as one of its best students despite having been rejected three times. He debuted while he was still at school in the role of Pietrek in Maria Kaniewska's children's film Panienka z okienka (1964). Immediately after, Konrad Nalecki offered him the leading role in Czterej pancerni i pies, which for Gajos would turn out to be both an opportunity and a curse. The heroic commander of the tank "Rudy" 102, which was fighting against the Nazi invader at the side of the "fraternal" Soviet Army, became a genuine idol for younger audiences. Meetings with the "soldiers" from "Rudy" were organised at stadiums, schools and cultural centres. The series' gained unbelievable popularity and was shown numerous times on television, this brought about the blurring of the border between cinematic fiction and historical truth. For Janusz Gajos, this meant that he was increasingly becoming identified with the character, as a result, his career was going nowhere. At that time, he was an actor with the Jaracz Theatre in Łódź, however none of the roles he appeared in during the period were ever mentioned in reviews. Aside from some brief appearances, he also was not acting in films. "I was afraid that was the end. Professional death. And I wanted very much to act, I wanted to be an actor", he recalled.
In 1970, he moved to Warsaw, where he worked in the following theatres, Komedia (Comedy), Polski (Polish), Kwadrat (Square) and Dramatyczy (Dramatic).
In 1977, it seemed that his problems had ended after appearing in Sylwester Szyszko's film Milioner in the role of Józef Mikula he received an award at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk. On that occasion the director said,
I had observed this actor for a long time. A year earlier, he appeared in my film Mgła / The Fog in an episodic art as a UB (secret police) man. And I saw that he was a different person already. I knew that inside him there was a great actor who could break through the (typecast).
Although one typecast may have disappeared, there were soon new ones, connected with the role of the custodian Turecki in the television programme "Olga Lipińska's Cabaret". Critics called his character, a crafty fellow with a moustache who wore a quilted coat and a beret-a comedic masterpiece, and thus he was once again pigeonholed. It was so strong that not even Gajos's wonderful role as the schizophrenic Michal Szmandy in Filip Bajon's intimate psychological drama Wahadełko / Shilly-Shally did not help change things, nor did his outstanding performance in Andrzej Wajda's Człowiek z żelaza / Man of Iron. Critics and audiences could only assess his role as Kapielowy in Ryszard Bugajski's Przesłuchanie / The Interrogation years later as the result of martial law.
Gajos's long-awaited return to the stage came thanks to Television Playhouse (Teatr Telewizji) and Kazimierz Kutz, who cast him in the role of Ödön von Horvath in Christopher Hampton's Tales of Hollywood (Polish trans., Opowieści Hollywoodu) (1987). The play tells the stories of great German authors who emigrated from Europe after Hitler came to power and then found themselves in the American "dream factory". We see their problems through the eyes of von Horvath, who is present in every scene as the chronicler, commentator and narrator all in one. Its director said,
After that show everyone was excited about Gajos's talent. I remember perfectly how Tadeusz Łomnicki called me after seeing the production on television and told me: 'Do you know who Gajos is? Gajos is a Greeaat actor.' (...) I think that before that show, Janusz still was feeling unfulfilled as an actor, a person who was a bit lost. The stereotypes were weighing heavily upon him. (Rzeczpospolita, September 23, 1999)
This role really brought him enormous recognition and liberated him. He was almost immediately inundated with film and theatre offers, from Paul Barz's period piece Kolacja na cztery ręce / Supper for Four Hands, in which he played Händel, to the grotesque, as Podsiekalników in Mikołaj Erdman's Samobójca / The Suicide (1989), or a village party secretary in Ivo Brešan's Przedstawienie Hamleta we wsi Głucha Dolna / Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrdusa Donja (1987), to contemporary pieces such as his role as Matyk in the film Śmierć jak kromka chleba / Death as a Slice of Bread. Olga Lipińska said,
Janusz does not have to fear being pigeonholed. He is a great actor, works hard, is talented, and above all is constantly in search of unusual solutions. The biggest enemy in acting is banality. Janusz is an artist who tries to avoid banality. He can act in any genre-from cabaret to Greek tragedy.
Gajos came to be regarded as a multifaceted actor thanks to his role as Robert in Marek Hłasko's Nawrócony w Jaffa / Convert in Jaffa, (1987), Astrov in Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1989), Nos in Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding (1995) and the monologues and sketches from the "Pod Egida" Cabaret. "I am never worried about whether I'm playing a writer, doctor or plumber because I am always playing a human being", Gajos said.
He also appeared in two interesting roles in Krzysztof Kieślowski's films Dekalog 4 and Three Colors: White.
I managed to succeed despite myself. I didn't let myself be pushed into some corner, which very often was a real threat. I always tried to fool those people who wanted to be rid of me. The most important thing is to always surprise people, which for an actor is very interesting.
The most important thing during this period was, however, his role as the Censor in Wojciech Marczewski's well-known film Ucieczka z kina "Wolność" / Escape from the Liberty Cinema. Jan Józef Szczepański wrote that
The character of a censor is not very popular with our actors. Not surprising. Even devilish horns seem to be too noble for this colourless functionary of falsehood. Marczewski, however, found an interesting role for him. The censor in his film, as the co-author of a false vision of the world, is the only person who can identify with a reality in revolt. This is because he lives on the edge of insanity. Janusz Gajos's main task was to demonstrate how someone with a trivial and cynical nature reacts to the torturous challenge of truth. Gajos managed to carry out this difficult task impressively, creating one of the best roles of his acting career. (Jan Józef Szczepański, "Bardzo poważny żart Marczewskiego", Film, no. 52/1990)
Since 1985, Janusz Gajos has been one of the stars at Warsaw's Teatr Powszechny. His most important theatrical roles have been there, as He in Aleksander Gelman's Ławeczka / The Bench (1987), ("Gajos, has has grown to be one of the leading actors of the Warsaw stage, has created something very interesting here..." said Lucjan Kydryński, Kurier Warszawski, Przekrój, no. 2186/1987); as Kochkariov in Nikolai Gogol's The Bridegroom (1995); as Carter in Sam Shephard's Simpatico (1999); and as Svidrigailov in the stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment (2000).
Gajos plays Svidrigailov wonderfully, delicately, capturing all the nuances, not letting himself get carried away, keeping his distance the whole time from both himself and the character. How is he able to keep himself within bounds, so as not to take one step too many, not to repeat a gesture for better effect, not get carried away with the words... (Ewa Zielińska, "Koncertmistrz", Rzeczpospolita, no. 207/2000)
He has also proven that he feels right at home in monodramas. Msza za miasto Arras / A Mass for Arras (1994), based on the allusive novel by Andrzej Szczypiorski, remains in Teatr Powszechny's repertory even today. Andrzej Z. Kowalczyk wrote,
The actor begins the monodrama as a grey-haired old man who is weary from life itself, who speaks with difficulty, as if he were trying to keep the spectre of the past at bay. As he tells this story, Jan seems to grow younger. He tells the events in Arras as if they had just happened yesterday. Moreover, we can see the change that they brought about in the narrator-protagonist. He does this all by using simple and frugal techniques, but used in a way that for the almost one and a half hours of the play's duration, our attention does not falter even for a moment. He has control over the audience the entire time. This is certainly a great achievement for an actor. (Andrzej Z. Kowalczyk, "Ostrzeżenie", Kurier Lubelski, no. 261, 12 November 1997)
In recent years, Gajos appeared frequently on the big screen as well. In the more commercially-oriented films, he plays gangsters, cheats, corrupt policemen and thieves. Ekstradycja / Extradition (1996); Egzekutor / Executioner (1999); Fuks (1999); Ostatnia misja / The Last Mission (1999); To ja, złodziej / It's Me, the Thief (2000). In art films, he plays people with problems. He was highly praised and given an award for his performance as an alcoholic struggling with his addiction in Janusz Morgenstern's film Żółty szalik (2000). A reviewer wrote,
Janusz Gajos, playing an alcoholic, a person who is suffering and causes other people to suffer, has created a character who impresses us with his purity of expression and self-discipline. (Krzysztof Demidowicz, "Żółty szalik", Film, no. 12/2000)
Gajos's latest success is in the title role in the performance of Bigda idzie / Bigda is Coming done for Television Playhouse (Teatr Telewizji), based on the novel by Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski and directed by Andrzej Wajda.
I am not one to split hairs but I know that the time you spend working in this profession pays off in the end. Sometimes it's after the one-hundredth performance that we have some revelation. Theatre is magic and that's what keeps me in it. The stage, backstage, it all conjures up feelings that I can't even describe, I admit it. And despite so many years on the stage, the same incredibly intense feelings come over me, just like forty years ago, when I saw Dorman backstage at the Puppet Theatre for the first time. Empty, dark and quiet. The stage decorations removed, a little light on somewhere, in the corner forgotten remnants of scenery. And that empty auditorium, like a huge, strange, sleeping creature, which the moment it awakes transforms into something wonderful. And it depends on me whether that will happen. That is what keeps me in theatre, despite the fact that it goes against all reason. ("Wszyscy podejmujemy ryzyko", Gazeta Wyborcza, April 13, 2001)
Gajos has been the member of the National Theatre company since 2003. There he played the leading parts of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (2004, dir. Kazimierz Kutz), Father Kubala in Jerzy Pilch's Narty Ojca Świętego / Holy Father's Skis (2004, dir. Piotr Cieplak), as well as the part of Fouquet in Nick Dear's Power (2005, dir. Jan Englert), Czelcow in Sławomir Mrożek's Miłość na Krymie / Love in the Crimea (2007, dir. Jerzy Jarocki), and Lebedev in Ivanov, written by Anton Chekhov (2008 dir. Jan Englert). He starred as the Father in Daily Soup, a contemporary play by Amanita Muskarii, directed by a young theatre director, Małgorzata Bogajewska (2007). You could also see him on the stage of Polonia Theatre performing the title role in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Romulus the Great (2009, dir. Krzysztof Zanussi).
In the recent years Gajos also created attention-grabbing roles at the Television Theatre: the General in Janusz Głowacki's play Czwarta siostra / The Fourth Sister (2002, dir. Agnieszka Glińska), and Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet (2003, dir. Łukasz Barczyk). In Norymerga / Nuremberg (2006, dir. Waldemar Krzystek), a play written by Wojciech Tomczyk in which the author attempts to settle accounts with the Polish People's Republic, Gajos performance as the Colonel was outstanding.
Gajos's major recent film roles include Andrzej Hoffman, a man entangled in the Polish reality of the 1960s, in Wojciech Wójcik's Tam i z powrotem / There and Back (2001), Cześnik in Andrzej Wajda's Zemsta / The Revenge (2002), and Brother Zdrówko in Jasminum, a magical film directed by Jan Jakub Kolski (2006). In addition, in Jerzy Antczak's Chopin. Pragnienie miłości / Chopin: Desire for Love (2002) Gajos played the part of the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, and in a thought-provoking romantic comedy Zakochany Anioł / Angel in Love, directed by Artur Baron Więcek (2005) he performed as Lupin, a Warsaw tramp.
Most significant awards:
- 1977 - acting award for his role in the film Milioner / Millionaire at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk
- 1981 - acting award for his role in the film Wahadełko / Shilly-Shally at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk
- 1986 - Golden Screen award for his role in the film Bing-Bang and for his outstanding acting in Television Playhouse (Teatr Telewizji) productions (Zapomniany diabel / The Forgotten Devil, Mgiełka / The Mist, Przedstawienie Hamleta we wsi Głucha Dolna / Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrdusa Donja)
- 1989 - the Golden Duck (Złota Kaczka) award for his performance in Przesłuchanie / The Interrogation
- 1990 - acting award for his roles in the films Przesłuchanie / The Interrogation and Ucieczka z Kina "Wolność" / Escape from the Liberty Cinema at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk
- 1992 - award for supporting actor in the films Kiedy rozum śpi / When Reason Sleeps and Szwadron / Squadron
- 1993 - first prize for best acting at the Kalisz Theatrical Encounters for his role as Robert in Marek Hlasko's Nawrócony w Jaffa / Convert in Jaffa in Poznań's Teatr Polski
- 1995 - acting award at the Kalisz Theatrical Encounters for his role as Kochkariev in Nikolai Gogol's The Bridegroom / Ożenek at the Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw
- 1996 - acting award at the Opole Theatrical Confrontations for his role as Nos in Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding at Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw
- 1999 - award for best supporting role in the film Fuks at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdańsk2000 - special award from Canal+ for his role in the film Żółty szalik / The Yellow Scarf at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdansk
- 2000 - Warsaw's Feliks award for his performance in the title role of Swidrygajlow (Svidrigailov), based on the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevskii in Warsaw's Teatr Powszechny
- 2001 - Eagle (Orzeł) award, Polish Film Award for the best supporting role in the film To ja, złodziej / It's me, The Thief
- 2001 - Grand Prize for his title role in the television production of Bigda idzie / Bigda is Coming at the "Two Theatres" Festival in Sopot
- 2002 – Polonia Restituta Commander's Cross with Star; Winner in Rzeczpospolita daily's most popular actor vote; Compass Award given by Przegląd weekly magazine to individuals who serve as role models and help those in need;
- 2003 – Super Wiktor Theatre Academy Lifetime Achievement Award; Crystal Pomegranate for Best Comedy Actor at the 7th National Comedy Film Festival in Lubomierz; Minister of Culture Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award; Best Actor Jańcio Wodnik Statuette for part of Andrzej Hoffman in Wojciech Wójcik's film Tam i z powrotem / There and Back at the Prowincjonalia National Film Art Festival in Września; Grand Prix for the part of the General in Janusz Głowacki's play Czwarta siostra / The Fourth Sister, directed by Agnieszka Glińska for the Television Theatre, at Two Theatres 3rd Polish Radio Theatre and Polish Television Festival in Sopot; Hulk of Success, Sukces monthly magazine's award;
- 2005 – Golden Sceptre Polish Culture Foundation Distinction for "virtuoso theatre and film performances deepening the truth about the people of our times"; Best Actor Award audience popular vote for the part of Father Kubala in Jerzy Pilch's Narty Ojca Świętego / Holy Father's Skis, directed by Piotr Cieplak for The National Theatre in Warsaw, at 11th Polish Festival of Pleasant and Unpleasant Plays in Łódź;
- 2006 – Best Male Golden Horseshoe for the part of Brother Zdrówko in Jan Jakub Kolski's film Jasminum, at "Summer Frames" Film Festival in Cieszyn;
- 2007 – Best Male Performance Eagle Polish Film Award for the part of Brother Zdrówko in Jan Jakub Kolski's film "Jasminum"; Grand Prix for the part of the Colonel in Wojciech Tomczyk's television play Norymberga / Nuremberg, directed by Waldemar Krzystek, at Two Theatres 7th Polish Radio Theatre and Polish Television Festival in Sopot;
- 2009 – Honourable Golden Angel for contribution to the art of acting and creative independence, at Tofifest International Film Festival in Toruń.
Article created: December 2001.
Update: November 2009.
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer.