Wiesław Michnikowski is a great theatre and film actor, and a cabaret artist with a wonderful sense of humour, best known for collaborating with such cabarets as Wagabunda, Kabaret Starszych Panów and Dudek. He was born in Warsaw on the 3rd of June, 1922. He died on the 29th of September, 2017.
Great theatre and film actor, cabaret artist with a wonderful sense of humour, best known for collaborating with such cabarets as Wagabunda, Kabaret Starszych Panów and Dudek.
He considered himself chiefly a stage actor; he played many important parts in almost all the premieres of Sławomir Mrożek’s works – for instance, in the premieres of The Party / Zabawa, Tango, The Fortunate Event / Szczęśliwe wydarzenie, The Emigrés / Emigranci, The Tailor / Krawiec and Widows / Wdowy. Polish audiences remember him chiefly for his characteristic roles in such films as Gangsters and Philanthropists / Gangsterzy i filantropi, Hydro-Riddle / Hydrozagadka, Rififi After 60 / Rififi po sześćdziesiątce, Hello, Fred the Beard / Hallo Szpicbródka, Othello from a Two Person Apartment / Otello z M-2, The Effects of Wearing a Hat in May / Skutki noszenia kapelusza w maju and Sex Mission / Seksmisja, where he superbly played the part of Her Excellency. He also acted in the series Four Tank-Men and a Dog / Czterej pancerni i pies and John Heart / Jan Serce. In the Polish version of the cartoon the Smurfs, he lent his uinque voice to the character of Papa Smurf.
However, Michnikowski is best-known as a cabaret star. In the Kabaret Starszych Panów television show, he sang many unforgettable songs with lyrics by Jeremi Przybora and music by Jerzy Wasowski, including The Life of an Old-Timer is Joyful / Wesołe jest życie staruszka, If You’re to Love Don’t Do It Individually / Jeżeli kochać to nie indywidualnie, Adio Tomatoes! / Adio pomidory! and Invocation (Without You I’m As Sad As a Funeral Procession Against the Wind in the Rain) / Inwokacja (Bez Ciebie jestem tak smutny, jak kondukt w deszczu pod wiatr).
These songs entered the canon of Polish entertainment, as did the sketches Knot / Sęk by Konrad Tom and Learn Johnny / Ucz się Jasiu by Stanisław Tym, in which Michnikowski performed as a member of the Dudek cabaret. The older generation still remembers and quote these sketches, and the younger generation knows them from the DVDs with Dudek’s sketches which are regularly released.
From a Car Repair Shop to the Stage
Michnikowski had been fascinated with the automotive industry since his childhood. Learning about cars and working with them took up most of his time as he started adult life during the war. Having some experience as a car mechanic, he began to study at the Lublin University of Technology, where he prepared with his colleagues plays that were performed at the local Soldier’s House in 1945. He was noticed there by the great pre-war actor and director Karol Borowski. Thanks to Borowski’s encouragement, the freshly former car mechanic still wearing a military uniform began attending a school called the Dramatic Study in Lublin.
In 1946 Wiesław Michnikowski passed an extramural exam at Karol Borowski’s Dramatic School in Lublin. He was successively an actor at the Theatre of the Soldier’s House in Lublin (1945-1946), the Municipal Theatre in Lublin (1946-1947), The Klasyczny Theatre in Warsaw (1947-1948), the Juliusz Osterwa Theatre in Lublin (1948-1951), the Theatre of Young Warsaw (1951-1956), the Komedia Theatre in Warsaw (1956-1957), the Wagabunda Cabaret (1957-1958), the Współczesny Theatre in Warsaw (1958-1970), the Polish Theatre in Warsaw (1970-1971) and again of the Współczesny Theatre (1971-1992).
I debuted in Returning from War / Powrót z wojny, then I played my favourite role of Fortunio in Le Chandelier / Świecznik by Alfred de Musset, I also played the main part in The Marriage of Figaro / Wesele Figara and in 1951 I finally returned to Warsaw. In the beginning of my career I was fortunate enough to meet great pre-war actors: Aleksander Żabczyński, Antoni Fertner, Tola Mankiewiczówna and many others, who were true pre-war movie stars. I wandered about Warsaw theatres a lot: from the Theatre of Young Warsaw, through the Komedia Theatre, to the Współczesny Theatre and Polish Theatre.
Theatre: the Magical Dressing Room of the Współczesny Theatre
In the Współczesny Theatre, where the actor spent 33 seasons in total, he formed a great partnership with Mieczysław Czechowicz (they also did very well as a duo in the Kabaret Starszych Panów TV show). Representing two different, highly contrasting human types, they complemented and supported each other and created firm, distinct roles. In this acting arrangement Czechowicz usually played a “working man” and Michnikowski an intellectual.
In the Współczesny Theatre, Michnikowski met, amongst others, Jerzy Kreczmar (Michnikowski played the memorable part of AA in the pre-premiere of Mrożek’s The Emigrés, which Kreczmar directed) and Zbigniew Zapasiewicz. Zapasiewicz directed the play Backstage Stories / Historie Zakulisowe for the Theatre of Television and gave Michnikowski a part. Referring to the phenomenon of the popularity of stage comedies. Zapasiewicz mentioned Michnikowski:
A well-written comedy consists of paradoxical situations in which small things grow into absurd, cosmic issues. That’s when it gets funny. The ability to communicate paradoxes to the viewer, to deliver jokes and punch lines is important, Irena Kwiatkowska definitely has this ability. Every sketch or song by her involves the construction of a character. Another master of abbreviation is Wiesław Michnikowski, after all a living man put together the words “If you’re to love don’t do it individually”. They are perfectionists. A comedy depends not only on the sense of humour of the actors but also on the sense of humour of the viewers.
Wiesław Michnikowski is known for his conciliatory character and for keeping away from the acting communities’ quarrels and envies. Nobody ever doubted him when he complimented the acting of his colleagues from the stage.
Every actor has at least one role which he dreams of playing. For many years such a role for me was Ignacy Rzecki from Bolesław Prus’ Lalka. When I learned that Ryszard Ber gave this part to Bronek Pawlik, I thought that Bronek had a lot of luck, I even envied Pawlik a little. After seeing the movie, I admitted however that Pawlik had created a role of great purity. I congratulated him sincerely because I knew that nobody would have played that part better.
Michnikowski acted in plays by Shakespeare, Słowacki, Mickiewicz, Fredro and Pirandello. The actor created comedic and lyrical roles, as well as villains. In the Polish Theatre, he sometimes played almost circus roles – he said a few lines standing on his head in We Love Each Other / Się kochamy – only to enter the depressed and neurotic moods of the main characters of such plays as The Birthday Party / Urodziny Stanleya on the next day. This was, however, merely an exercise compared to the role of Goebbels which he played in Bunker / Bunkier, a play prepared for the Theatre of Television, or to the part of a prison doctor and cruel torturer in Bond’s Lear / Lir, which was staged at the Współczesny Theatre. As a versatile actor he successfully dealt with even the toughest challenges.
The Movies: You’ll Become a Stuntman Too
Michnikowski’s youthful fascination with the automotive industry and experience as a driver proved to be useful on film sets. In Blue As the Black Sea / Niebieskie jak Morze Czarne he played the director of a car factory. He acted behind the wheel of a car a number of times, for example in Gangsters and Philanthropists and Heaven and Hell / Piekło i niebo. In You Will Also Become an Indian / I ty zostaniesz Indianinem he was given what was virtually a stunt to perform.
I was driving a Fiat Multipla, a vehicle with a clipped front. So was my friend Zbigniew Kryński. A take was to be filmed in which we were to have a head-on collision. Specialists from the traffic department made calculations and signs with chalk which were to show us where to start, from where to drive 40 and when to start braking. We were to stop about a dozen centimetres in front of each other. I did everything according to the instructions but the safety coefficient of the braking distance was too large – we were stopping about a dozen meters away from each other. Finally the specialists gave up and said: “Just drive it intuitively”. A bus came from the opposite direction. The bus driver saw me on his lane and let go of the steering wheel and covered his eyes. I somehow managed to maneuvere out of danger. Next to me, Kazio Brusinkiewicz was sitting as a passenger and he was praying all the time.
Actors are usually substituted by specialized and appropriately prepared stuntmen in dangerous scenes. Michnikowski didn’t have to do it himself but nevertheless he liked to take risks.
According to the critics, and not just them, filmmakers didn’t know how to make use of Michnikowski’s talent. The actor’s rich filmography includes very few main roles, but plenty of supporting ones, such as the part of the Ambassador in Kazimierz Kutz’s Heat / Upał, a movie that refers to the phenomenon of the popularity of Kabaret Starszych Panów. Michnikowski, however, chiefly played small parts, although important and memorable ones.
The small part Michnikowski played in Jerzy Gruza’s The Woodpecker / Dzięcioł is simply unforgettable. In the scene where an on-camera survey about how Varsovians spend their summer weekends is being conducted in the streets, the actor plays an effeminate, fame-hungry fellow, who constantly jumps in front of the lens and interrupts the survey with his comments. Fluttering his eyelashes, he answers with full conviction the question “what would you choose: a cinema, a theatre or a swimming pool”, which isn’t at all directed at him: “A swimming pool! Nothing but a swimming pool!”.
It was a film, not a theatrical play, that finally fulfilled the expectations of director Erwin Axer, who believed that among the actors from his team, Michnikowski would be the best to play a female role. In Juliusz Machulski’s Sex Mission Michnikowski superbly played the role of Her Excellency, who rules the female population of a near-future country where there are no men.
When I was involved with the Współczesny Theatre, Axer often told me that he thought that the role of… an old woman would fit me. I was even supposed to play Maniefa in The Diary of a Scoundrel / Pamiętnik Szubrawca, a play directed by the great Tovstonogov. Nothing came of that however, maybe the director got scared of this idea, eventually Perzanowska got the part. After a while I received another offer: I almost played the role of Zofia Mrozowska’s mother in Spaniards from Denmark / Hiszpanie z Danii. I had to turn that one down myself. Finally Jerzy Machulski asked me to play a mature woman in Sex Mission. I had to dedicate this role to Axer, at least out of gratefulness.
[Wiesław Michnikowski in a conversation with Jolanta Ciosek, Characteristic Lyricism / Liryzm charakterystyczny, the Dziennik daily Polski, 13 of August 2005]
The Cabaret: A Weird Little Man
Among Michnikowski’s various film and theatrical roles the most memorable are the superbly played comedy characters. Therefore it was nothing strange that Karol Szpalski invited Michnikowski to collaborate with the cabaret Wagabunda, which was created on the wave of the post-October changes. The artist born in 1922 gave magnificent performances as a member of this cabaret.
The shows of Wagabunda were very popular back then. This cabaret was an innovative literary-acting group which included amongst others: Lidia Wysocka, Marysia Koterbska and Janusz Osęka. We travelled a lot with the shows of Wagabunda, we were the first group which travelled across the Iron Curtain so often. That was a lot of fun for us and an extra excitement. Even though I had some successes with this cabaret I always focused on theatre.
[Wiesław Michnikowski in a conversation with Jolanta Ciosek, Characteristic Lyricism / Liryzm charakterystyczny, the daily Dziennik Polski, 13 August 2005]
He spent a season as a member of Wagabunda and afterwards he became involved with the Współczesny Theatre. Soon he and Edward Dziewoński were invited by Jeremi Przybora and Jerzy Wasowski to collaborate on the shows of Kabaret Starszych Panów, which even today rank at the very top of the television popularity ratings. Michnikowski debuted with the song The Life of an Old-Timer is Joyful.
Afterwards his character was becoming younger with every show. He played a ladies’ man, a cheap scoundrel and a child of weavers. Apart from many wonderful lyrical songs he popularized also the famous song Adio Tomatoes!
At first I didn’t really like this song. I wondered what to do with it. Eventually I came to think that it should be performed by some weird little man. That was how I interpreted this song. My friends liked this character so the song stayed that way.
[Jan Bończa-Szabłowski, The Modesty of a Top Student / Skromność prymusa in: Stars in Close-Up / Gwiazdy w zbliżeniu, Warsaw 1995]
The cabaret Dudek was another adventure for the actor.
Dudek is of course associated with Konrad Tom’s legendary, near perfect Jewish joke Knot which was invented probably in 1926. At first this joke was performed by the author and Ludwik Lawiński, but it gained its great popularity thanks to Edward Dziewoński, who performed this joke as part of Dudek’s offerings together with Wiesław Michnikowski. The Perskie Oko Theatre where this best sketch ever was being originally performed was located in 63 Nowy Świat Street. The cabaret Dudek created in 1964 moved in there 40 years after those shows and enjoyed 10 greatly successful years at this location.
It is very seldom, once in 50 years, that a text like Knot appears. Of course, you have to know how to deliver it, but it is brilliant. I think this is the funniest piece that Konrad Tom wrote in his career and he did after all write very many funny things. We were talking once with Michnikowski about our acting careers and we came to the conclusion that even though we have played a lot and have certain achievements, we will always be remembered by audiences as Rapaport and Goldberg. Knot is the best.
[Edward Dziewoński, Life is Like Theatre / W życiu jak w teatrze, Warsaw 1989]
Dziewoński and Michnikowski also brought another Jewish joke back to the contemporary repertoire – Julian Tuwim’s An Old Testament Elegy / Elegia starozakonna.
Privately: A Bit of Acting Each Day
Wiesław Michnikowski was fascinated with cinema as a teenager: he didn’t however want to be in front of the camera, but behind, working as a cameraman. Back then he constructed a film projector from a sewing machine and parts bought at the Kercelak marketplace. Turning on the device caused all the windows in his tenement house to rattle.
As a grown-up the actor purchased a real projector and a narrow gauge camera which he used to film the everyday life of his family and the backstage theatrical life. He documented for instance the travels of Wagabunda and the behind-the-scenes of the performances of Kabaret Starszych Panów and made the last film with Kazimierz Rudzki, who went to the hospital the day after this film was recorded and passed away there. “I have half a drawer of films I made myself, some pre-war movies, projectors, cameras and two editing tables. What am I to do with all of this now? – Michnikowski wonders.
On stage, as well as in his private life, the actor is graceful and has an original sense of humour. The actor bought his first car jointly with his brother-in-law, who received an allocation for a Wartburg as a worker of the Ministry of Railways.
He used it on odd days, I – on even days. I remember that once I was leaving the Komedia Theatre in Żoliborz with Basia Krafftówna after a rehearsal of the play Jim & Jill / Jim i Jill. She sighed: “What a cool car”. It was standing there, alone, in front of the theatre. I didn’t mention it was mine. I asked Basia if she wanted to go for a ride. I told her to look around to see if anyone was watching. I took out the keys and pretended that I was tampering with the lock using something. I invited her inside. She got into the car even though she wasn’t sure whether to be amused or frightened. Before I told her on the way that I had played a joke on her, she was convinced that we were riding in a stolen car.
Jeremi Przybora mentioned that the actor born in 1922 is very modest "which seems rather funny given Michnikowski’s talent”. Professor Aleksander Bardini noticed that away from the stage and the film sets Michnikowski does everything to be seen and heard as little as possible. The actor who played Her Excellency doesn’t like parties, balls and jubilees – he avoids publicity, journalists and television cameras.
He doesn’t like to talk about himself because it’s boring, he prefers to say nice things about his friends. He was most anxious about accepting those roles which turned out to be very successful. Dubbing and radio directors employ his characteristic voice and the actor says he likes to perform in children’s radio plays.
Once I was playing a Forest Man. An older lady was playing a squirrel which says: “Come to me Forest Man, my hollow is spacious, there’ll be enough room for both of us”. At this point Czechowicz cut in: “You won’t refuse the lady’s offer?”.
[Wiesław Michnikowski in a conversation with Wojciech Krzyżaniak, Even When I Was Young I Wasn’t Young / Młody nie byłem, nawet kiedy byłem, wyborcza.pl, 13 of March 2011]
[All the statements, the sources of which aren’t disclosed, come from interviews that the author of this text conducted in the years 1990-2009 for the daily Rzeczpospolita]
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, August 2014; transl. MK September 2014