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Beloved Austrian actor Peter Simonischek dies at 76

Peter Simonischek, a prominent Austrian theater actor who rose to international fame as a shambolic prankster and adoring father in Maren Ade’s 2016 Oscar-nominated German film “Toni Erdmann”, died on May 29 at his home in Vienna. . He was 76 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Brigitte Karner.

Mr. Simonischek was a member of the Burgtheater, the venerable Viennese institution otherwise known as the Burg, one of the oldest and largest ensemble theaters in the world.

“He was one of Austria’s last big stars,” said Simon Stone, the Vienna-based Australian director who cast Mr Simonischek in his 2021 play, “Komplizen,” at the Burg. Mr Simonischek, he said, was a beloved public figure, recognized by taxi drivers and passers-by on the streets of Vienna, where he was more of a celebrity than most movie stars.

He was certainly easy to spot: a handsome bear with shaggy hair from a man who used his physical size to great effect.

His height “gave his performances an imposing grandeur”, said AJ Goldmann, who covers German theater for The New York Times, “which could be tragic or give them a Falstaffian absurdity”.

In the comedy “Toni Erdmann”, the story of a workaholic management consultant named Ines (played with brittle humor by Sandra Hüller), Mr. Simonischek is Winifred, the mortifying father of Ines, a music teacher retiree who sets out to free Ines from her soul – crush the profession by camouflaging herself as Toni Erdmann, a crass, heavy-handed consultant to her boss, and upsetting everything she holds dear.

The film, written and directed by Ms. Ade, captivated critics at Cannes and the New York Film Festival and was nominated for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (losing to ‘The Salesman’, Iran). AO Scott, writing in The New York Times, called it “a study in the radical power of embarrassment” and described Mr Simonischek’s character as “a slapstick superhero”.

“Sometimes he’s a clown,” Mr. Stone said of Mr. Simonischek. “And sometimes he’s an authority figure or a good-natured leader. He was ready to humble himself completely. He used her beauty and imposing physique as a sort of canvas on which he could paint whatever disgusting or extraordinary quality any of his characters needed.

In Mr. Stone’s play “Komplizen,” which he says doesn’t quite accurately translate to “accomplice,” Mr. Simonischek played an industrialist who faces a settling of scores as the world turns against him and his fellows.

It’s Mr. Stone’s process of writing his scripts in rehearsal, encouraging actors to come to fresh material and making room for improvisation. It’s a grueling process, he said, and Mr. Simonischek excelled at it, encouraging younger cast members who struggled with the practice. Additionally, the production required a rotating stage, making rehearsals even more taxing.

“Once you have Peter in your corner, you can achieve anything,” Stone said. “His genius was contagious; he shared it daily with the cast. It’s a quality he’s had since the beginning of his career: making other actors brilliant while never becoming less brilliant himself.

Peter Simonischek was born on August 6, 1946 in Graz, Austria. His mother was a housewife and his father was a dentist who had hoped his son would study medicine, as Mr Simonischek told an interviewer last year. But after seeing a performance of “Hamlet” when he was a teenager, he said, “I was lost.”

He attended the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Graz and found work as an actor in Switzerland and Germany. In 1979, he joined the Schaubühne Berlin, an innovative ensemble theatre, where he became a star. He joined the Bur in 2000.

Besides “Toni Erdmann”, for which he received the European Film Award for Best Actor, his most recent film roles include “The Interpreter”, a 2018 Slovak film, and “Measure of Men”, a German film about the country’s colonial period. atrocities in Africa; it came out in February.

Besides his wife, who is also an actress, Mr. Simonischek is survived by three sons, Max, Kaspar and Benedikt, and two grandchildren. His first marriage, to Charlotte Schwab, ended in divorce.

Just before his death, Mr. Simonischek had played the stage role of the patriarch of a Pakistani-American family in a production of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and the What” at the Renaissance Theater in Berlin, after a wildly popular run at the Burg, where it opened in 2018. (The Renaissance shut down the show when Mr. Simonischek fell ill a few weeks ago.)

The play tells the story of a devout and charismatic Muslim whose daughter wrote a novel about the Prophet Muhammad, scandalizing their traditional community and upsetting their relationship.

Mr Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and is the author of the critically acclaimed 2020 novel, “Homeland Elegies”, said that of all his plays, this production is the oldest and most popular. And unlike its American run in 2014, it was staged with an all-white cast, solely because that’s the cultural and racial makeup of Burg’s set. It’s a scenario that in years past might have given him pause, as he told Mr. Goldmann of The Times in 2018. But Mr. Simonischek and his comrades had won him over.

“What was remarkable was this strange chemistry,” Mr. Akhtar said in a telephone interview, “because Simonischek was at that time the patriarch of Austrian theater, a father figure to Austrian audiences, and he played this conservative Muslim father.

“On opening night, the notoriously stoic Viennese audience was in tears,” he continued. “Maybe not as much as me” – Mr. Akhtar said he was sobbing on stage at the curtain call – “but not far from it. It was one of the highlights of my career.”

When Mr. Simonischek died, Mr. Akhtar was writing a play for him. Mr Simonischek, he said, was “moving, precise and thrilling – an actor whose heart and generosity were as broad as his talent”.

nytimes Eur

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