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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Actors

If we were to search back in time for images of the first Romanian actors, we might well have to put up with scattered blurry memories of raw theatrical shows held at popular events such as fairs or some boyar’s wedding by possibly talented but undoubtedly anonymous performers. To put names to the blurred faces of the first Romanian actors, we have to look first at the emergence of formal, written drama and professional theatres in the three Romanian principalities.

Thus, the first written plays were produced in Moldavia as late as around

1800 and included three pieces of comic puppet theatre by boyar and writer Costache Conachi, a verse play by princely court official and scholar Alecu Beldiman, political pamphlet dramas by statesman Iordache Golescu, and a comedy by an unknown author, the complete title of which is made up of no fewer than 34 words. No information is available about where, when or by whom those plays were publicly performed, though.

Information about the first (quasi)professional performers comes from Wallachia, instead, where a Phanariote prince’s youngest daughter, princess Ralu Caragea, gathered a group of young Greek relatives and friends, graduates of the Greek School in Bucharest and fans of Sophocles and Euripides, and made them into the first acting company in the country (1816). Initially performed in Ralu’s father’s palace, with setting consisting of home-made fabric and paper decorations, the Greek-language idylls and tragedies chosen by Ralu’s troupe for their repertoire were later given a home of their own: the little Cişmeaua Roşie (Red Fountain) theatre, a hall in which public performances were held starting 1818.

However, the first theatre proper was built on (what today is) Romanian territory in the town of Oraviţa, the region of Banat, in south-west Romania. At the time, Banat was part of the Habsburg Empire and, to mark a hundred years from its liberation from Ottoman rule, the Vienna authorities asked the 8,000 inhabitants of multicultural Oraviţa what they wanted for the centenary. The Romanian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Jewish and German townsfolk unanimously asked for a theatre. It was built in 1817 with stone from two nearby quarries as a replica of the Vienna-based Burgtheatre. Even though, surprisingly, the theatre never hired permanent acting staff, itinerant troupes (including from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Royal Theatre in Madrid) came and performed in several languages, depending on the ethnicity of the night’s audience.

One of the troupes that performed at Oraviţa (and occasioned the subsequent name of the theatre to be

“Mihai Eminescu”, as the national poet had been the troupe’s prompter) was Mihail Pascaly’s. A professional actor and director, Pascaly (1830-1882) can be regarded as one of the “shakers and movers” of modern Romanian theatre and acting. He toured the Romanian principalities extensively, introducing Romanian audiences to quality theatrical performances of plays by Shakespeare, Dumas, Vigny, Sardou and Gogol, with a special leaning towards melodrama, but also took his acting company abroad, helping introduce Romanian drama around Europe. In recognition of his contribution, Pascaly was later appointed Director of the Grand Theatre in Bucharest, an office he held up to 1877.

By that time, however, Iaşi in Moldavia had already been provided with a National Theatre (today called “Vasile Alecsandri”) in 1840, as part of a national awakening movement related to “fourty-eighters” like Mihail Kogălniceanu, one of its founders. The Iaşi theatre had its own acting company headed by Wallachian professional actor (and uncle to canon writer Ion Luca Caragiale) Costache Caragiali – a fact which is (only slightly) intricately related to Princess Ralu’s earlier endeavour. Here’s how: with a good eye for talent, Princess Ralu had spotted, during her Cişmeaua Roşie theatre soirées, a promising young actor called Costache Aristia and had financed his drama studies in Paris, at the school of Joseph François Talma. Aristia then returned to Romania and in 1833 set up the Drama School of the Philharmonic Society in Bucharest, where he taught acting and declamation. That’s where Costache Caragiali completed his acting and drama studies, after which his entrepreneurial zeal took him to Iaşi, where he helped consolidate the emerging institution of the National Theatre there.

To pause and pinpoint the main landmarks of professional acting in the Romanian principalities in the first half of the 19th century, let us remark that Princess Ralu Caragea enabled the emergence of the first professional acting company and drama school in Wallachia’s Bucharest. The first theatres especially designed for professional public performances were founded in 1817 in Banat, 1840 in Iaşi, and 1852 in Bucharest. And national and international repertoires started making their way around the country and abroad, with their beneficial educational impact on Romanian audiences who thus came in touch with art like Shakespeare’s, thanks to acting companies led by Costache Caragiali and Mihail Pascaly.

Besides those two pillars of the Romanian theatre, another equally important personality needs to be mentioned at this point: Pascaly’s arch-rival, actor and playwright Matei Millo. Born in Iaşi, Millo attended a local school where he was classmates with prominent forty-eighters, and then went to Paris (1840-1845) to study drama and gain some acting experience either by closely observing “great actors of the day” like Frédérick Lemaître and François Jules Edmond Got [1], or by doing occasional minor parts in plays performed by small French troupes. Once back in Romania, he got actively involved in the professionalisation of theatre in the Romanian principalities, working in both Iaşi and Bucharest as a drama professor, staging Romanian-language performances in Habsburg Transylvania, and adding his own original plays to the growing body of Romanian drama of the time. Above all, he was hugely popular for his “comically realist” cross-dressing role as Coana Chiriţa (Ma’am Chiriţa), a noisy bragging nag, in Vasile Alecsandri’s comedies.

With founding fathers (and mothers) like Princess Ralu, Costache Aristia, Caragiali, Pascaly and Millo, Romanian theatre was well consolidated by mid-19th century: established theatres were in place, where professional performances could be held, with foreign repertoires as well as locally produced dramas and comedies; and professional acting companies were dynamic enough to tour the three principalities and thus ensure some homogeneity in the development of theatre around the whole of today’s Romania. So in the second half of the 19th century it’s definitely easier to identify specific individual actors who left their mark on Romania’s dramatic art.

First, “the golden trio” comes to mind, made up of Constantin I. Nottara, Grigore Manolescu and Aristizza

Romanescu. Nottara (1859-1935) did his drama studies and apprenticeship at the Bucharest Conservatory and Paris Odeon Theatre, and then performed important lead parts (Shylock, Hamlet, Lear, Oedipus, Don Salluste, etc.) at the National Theatre in Bucharest; his style evolved from the romantic one that Mihail Pascaly had passed on to him, to a more realistic one based on careful planning of the parts. Grigore Manolescu (1857-1892) became an actor against his parents’ will, debuted at 16 with Matei Millo’s company, honed his acting skills in Paris at the Comédie-Française with Jean Mounet-Sully and Sarah Bernhardt, and returned home to work at the Iaşi and Bucharest National Theatres and become a paradigmatic Hamlet in Romanian theatre. Aristizza Romanescu (1854-1918) was born into a family of actors, debuted in Craiova when she was 18, learned acting informally while in Paris with Manolescu, who was her partner, then worked at the National Theatres in Iaşi and Bucharest, playing roles in plays by Shakespeare, Molière as well as Caragiale and Alecsandri. She also acted in one of the first Romanian films, “Independenţa României”, made in 1911-12, and was a brilliant Conservatory professor who helped shape prominent Romanian actresses (Maria Ventura, Lucia Sturdza-Bulandra, Maria Filotti, etc.)

Moving on to the inter-war years, star Constantin Tănase (1880-1945) was born in the city of Vaslui (eastern Romania), “where nothing ever happened”, and grew up in a poor family dreaming of becoming an actor. At 19, scraping just enough for the enrolment fee, he sat the admission exam at the Dramatic Arts Conservatory in Bucharest and passed it, with one of the examiners stating that the candidate with the oversized nose “was a natural born comedian – he barely started speaking, and you’d start laughing.” [2] Experiencing dire straits during his undergraduate studies, Tănase managed to hold several casual jobs and support himself throughout the Conservatory years, until he graduated in 1905 and subsequently got a permanent position at the National Theatre. Tănase became particularly famous for his unique acting style, blending vaudeville and cabaret elements into variety shows which had a marked satirical strand, so much so that people used to say that, no matter how bad the political situation, if you went to one of Tănase’s shows, you had a good laugh about it and then you felt better. Above all, Tănase was renowned as a “coupletist” who boldly mocked the politicians of his days, enabling ordinary Romanians to identify with his critical messages and feel represented by him as a sort of “spokesmen” of their discontent.

Following Tănase, the first half of the 20th century in Romanian acting, nurtured by the advent of cinematography too, saw an important diversification of acting styles and roles. Hungarian-born Béla Lugosi

(1882-1956) impersonated the unequalled horror character of Count Dracula in 1931. George Calboreanu (1896-1986) specialised mainly in historical characters and did the most memorable Ştefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) role to date. Alexandru Giugaru (1897-1986) worked with Tănase in the revue theatre, at one point of his career joined star Josephine Baker on stage in a Bucharest show, and subsequently took up mostly comedy parts. Grigore Vasiliu Birlic (1905-1970) was probably the greatest Romanian comedian of all times, with brilliantly done roles particularly in Caragiale’s plays but also in works by Molière and Carlo Goldoni. And Paris-educated Dina Cocea (1912-2008) opted for roles in historical dramas (such as “Neamul Şoimăreştilor”, set in 17th-century Moldavia) and biographies (for example, of humanist Dimitrie Cantemir or composer Ciprian Porumbescu).

Considering that some of the actors mentioned thus far were also professors of dramatic arts, the second half of the 20th century consequently saw a plethora of outstanding actors. Perhaps ironically, it was prominently comedians who made great careers during the communist regime, despite censorship in theatre and film. One of them was

Puiu Călinescu (1920-1997), a self-taught performer who worked for decades at the “Constantin Tănase” Comedy Theatre, writing his own skits, and whose slapstick style inspired critics to compare him to France’s Louis de Funès. Constanţa-born Jean Constantin (1928-2010) featured in comedies like the B.D. series alongside Călinescu, doing either gypsy or Turkish characters so brilliantly that he got nicknamed “the master of comedy”. Their colleague Dem Rădulescu (1931-2000), who also described as “an acting genius” by director Liviu Ciulei, acted in more than 45 movies throughout his career, in some of the co-starring with French Jean Marais and Marie Dubois. Another comedian from this bunch was Dina Cocea’s student Marin Moraru (1937-2016), who worked for four big theatres in Bucharest, acted in about 27 plays and 30 films, and was awarded the Loyal Service National Oder by the Romanian Presidency, as well as the Prize of Excellence for his whole acting career, at the Transylvania International Film Festival.

Of their generation, three more actors really stand out as more than great comedians, and deserve a special

mention. The first is Amza Pellea (1931-1983), equally impressive playing historical characters in epic movies (the Dacian king Decebal, prince Michael the Brave) and impersonating a paradigmatic countryman called Nea Mărin, hugely popular for his sharp humour. The second is Toma Caragiu (1925-1977), who acted in about 40 comedies and dramas and whose satirical subtle humour in television sketches, close to subversive during communism, made him famous with TV audiences. And the third is Gheorghe Dinică (1933-2009), also a student of Dina Cocea’s, whom critics compared to Robert de Niro and nicknamed “the greatest ‘evil’ of Romanian cinematography” because he usually played the “bad guy” (gangsters, arrogant nouveau riche or cynical con men) in more than 70 films throughout his career.

As for the ladies of that “golden generation”, dame Draga Olteanu-Matei (born 1933) performed in more than thirty films during her active career, managing to lend her style and appearance to two famous characters that came to be equated with her, in the Romanian public’s psyche:

Coana Chiriţa (Ma’am Chiriţa) and Veta, Amza Pellea’s Nea Mărin’s barely tamed wife. Tamara Buciuceanu Botez (born 1929) also played Coana Chiriţa, but it was other roles that drove the critics to call her “the Madame of Comedy”, with an active career that spans 57 years and which was rewarded with the Romanian Crown Order by the Royal House of Romania in 2014. Unlike Botez, Leopoldina Bălănuţă (1934-1998) became famous for her drama roles in plays rather than films, with a repertoire including Sophocles, Euripides, Tolstoy, Gorki and Tennessee Williams, but she also staged successful poetry and music shows. Finally, Irina Petrescu (1941-2013) worked with famous directors like Ion Popescu-Gopo, Liviu Ciulei and Lucian Pintilie, performed in plays by Shakespeare, Beckett, Sartre, Pirandello, Camus, etc., won the Best Actress Award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1969, and was awarded the “Star of Romania” National Order by the Romanian Presidency in 2000.

The last couple of decades have brought about new opportunities for Romanian contemporary actors: some

had roles in successful international productions, some gained fame and won awards internationally but for Romanian productions, while some others debuted in non-Romanian productions and count as diaspora performers. For example, Maia Morgenstern played the character of Mary in Mel Gibson’s Passions of the Christ, while Marcel Iureş did parts in Mission Impossible (1996) and The Peacemaker and Hart’s War, co-starring Hollywood darlings Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Bruce Willis. “Golden generation” actor Victor Rebengiuc starred in Lucian Pintilie’s Last Stop Paradise, which received the Special Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Venice Film Festival and in Cristi Puiu’s short film Cigarettes and Coffee, which got the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival. Similarly, Luminiţa Gheorghiu starred in The Death of Mr Lăzărescu, which received the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes in 2005, and in Child’s Pose, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2013. Finally, diaspora actress Elsa Pataki has made a career in Spain with theatre companies based in Madrid, but also in films like The Fast and Furious franchise, while Romanian-German Alexandra Maria Lara appeared as Hitler’s secretary in the Oscar-nominated Downfall (2004), did the lead part in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth without Youth (2007), and served as Cannes jury member in 2008.

Now, having arrived from the anonymous fair performers to festival prize winners, let’s zoom in on a fine, fine trio.

Johnny Weissmuller – Romanian-born American actor who portrayed Tarzan in 12 films

Born: 2 June 1904, in Timişoara, western Romania

Died: 20 January 1984 in Acapulco, Mexico

Career highlights

* 1905: his family emigrated to the United States

* 1913: contracted polio and took up swimming to counter the disease

* 1921: won the US national championships in the 50-and 220-yard competitions

* 1922: broke the world record in the 100-metre freestyle, swimming the distance in under one minute

* 1924 & 1928: won five gold medals and one bronze medal at the Olympic Games in France and Holland, in the swimming and polo competitions, respectively

* 1929: signed an endorsement contract with men’s underwear brand BVD to be a model, and appeared in a film (Glorifying the American Girl) for the first time

* 1930: published Swimming the American Crawl, an autobiography

* 1932: signed a 7-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and played the lead role in Tarzan the Ape Man

* 1932-1942: starred in six Tarzan movies produced by MGM

* 1942: moved to RKO Pictures and subsequently made six more (less successful) Tarzan movies with them

* 1948: played the main character in Jungle Jim for the first time

* 1948-1954: starred in 13 Jungle Jim films

* 1950: was elected by the Associated Press as “the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century” [3]

* 1965: retired to Florida and was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame

* 1973: received the George Eastman Award “for distinguished contribution to the art of film” [4]

* 1976: was included in the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame

* 1984: at his burial, he was honoured with a 21-gun salute, as for a head of state, at the request of Senator Ted Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan


* 2002: the biography Tarzan My Father, written by his son Johnny Weissmuller Jr, was published

* a street was named Johnny Weissmuller in Timişoara’s neighbourhood of Freidorf

* 2004: director Florin Iepan made a historical documentary titled The One, the Only, the Real Tarzan

* 2004: Johnny Weissmuller Jr went to Timişoara to kick off the “Johnny Weissmuller” Biathlon Contest and launch the Romanian translation of his biography, Tarzan My Father

* 2005: Johnny Weissmuller was declared posthumously an Honorary Citizen of Timişara

He was...

a natural born star who apparently “gave off a special light” [5], rather lax about money and, for some reason, unwilling to talk about his children; loyal even to people who tended to abuse his trust, an “unsurpassed athlete”, fun-loving and “irrepressible in his hope that things would turn out for the best.” [6]

Elvira Popescu – French-Romanian actress

Born: 10 May 1894 in Bucharest

Died: 11 December 1993 in Paris

Career highlights

* 1910: made her stage debut, aged 16, at the National Theatre in Bucharest

* circa 1911: started studying drama at the Bucharest Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, with professors Constantin Nottara and Aristizza Romanescu

* 1911: starred in two films made by director Grigore Brezeanu, Fatal Love and Spin a Yarn

* 1912: acted in director Aristide Demetriade’s film Independeţa României/The Independence of Romania

* 1919: became Artistic Director of the Excelsior Theatre in Bucharest

* 1921: founded and was the first manager of Teatrul Mic in Bucharest

* 1923: starred in director Alfred Halm’s movie Ţigăncuşa de la iatac/The Gypsy Girl at the Alcove

* 1923 on: moved to Paris and performed in various plays at theatres in Paris, so successfully that the critics nicknamed her “Notre Dame du Théâtre”

* 1931-1960: starred in around 30 movies

* 1956-1965: was Director of Théâtre de Paris

* 1965-1978: was Director of Théâtre Marigny

* 1987: received the honorary Molière Award for career achievements

* 1989: was awarded the Légion d’honneur by French President François Mitterand


* the cinema hall of the French Institute in Bucharest was named after her

She was...

an unequalled stage actress, mastering all the nuances and subtleties of acting, who “beamed a magnetic fluid” when she got on stage; a favourite and protégée of the Romanian Royal House [7]; a highly esteemed socialite who entertained at her Avenue Foch residence people as famous as Guy de Rothschild, Jacques Chirac, Pierre Cardin and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing [8].

Oana Pellea – Romanian actress and writer

Born: 29 January 1962

Career highlights

* 1982-2015: played in more than 25 movies

* 1984: graduated from the Dramatic and Cinematographic Art Institute in Bucharest

* 1984-1987: worked at the Piatra Neamţ Theatre

* 1987-1999: worked at the Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest, touring Europe, the Americas and Japan

* 1999 on: has been a freelancing stage actress with several theatres like Bulandra, Metropolis, Mignon, etc.

* 2006: co-starred with Clive Owen in director Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men, which was nominated for three Oscars

* 2007: co-starred with Neve Campbell and Alexandra Maria Lara in director Oliver Parker’s film I Really Hate My Job

* 2008: starred in director Jean-Cristophe Comar’s film Fire and Ice: The Dragon Chronicles

* 2009: published Jurnal 2003-2009/Journal 2003-2009, a bestseller

* 2010: was awarded the Romanian Academy’s Aristizza Romanescu Prize for career achievement

* 2012: was awarded the Cross of the Romanian Royal House by King Michael I

She has been...

in awe of her parents, especially her father, actor Amza Pellea; a strong, independent character; in love with rain and a fan of walking in the rain because that’s how she best collects her thoughts [9]; dedicated to acting as a way of offering people joy; a firm believer we humans are part of a divine higher spirit, and our mission is to learn and understand. [10]

Now, are you ready for the perfect rendition of a yell which almost every kid has had a go at?

Photo credits








Notes & sources

[1] “Matei Millo”. Wikipedia. Accessed 13 Aug 2018. <>

[2] <>

[3] “Johnny Weissmuller”. Wikipedia. Accessed 19 August 2018. <>

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


[7] <>

[8] “Elvira Popescu”. Wikipedia. Accessed 19 August 2018. <>

[9] <>

[10] <>

#Romanianculture #Romanianhistory #Romaniancelebrities #famousRomanians

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