Russian and Lithuanian outlets are reporting that Donatas Banionis––the Lithuanian actor best known to Western moviegoers as the star of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris––has died following a stroke. He was 90.
Born into a poor family in Kaunas, Banionis became interested in acting in his teens, studying under the legendary theater director Juozas Miltinis. In 1940, Miltinis relocated to Panevėžys to found the Panevėžys Drama Theater (now called the Juozas Miltinis Drama Theater), a troupe focused––like many new theater companies of the time––on teaching and exploring more naturalistic acting styles. Banionis followed his teacher to Panevėžys, and graduated from its acting studio in 1944, the same year that Lithuania reverted to Soviet control.
Banionis considered himself a stage actor first and foremost, and came to film relatively late. His movie career only began to take off in the mid-1960s, with a string of small roles in Soviet films like The Red Tent and King Lear. His first film starring role came in Goya, Konrad Wolf’s 1971 East German biopic about the Spanish painter.
The next year, Banionis played what would become his most famous role: Kris Kelvin, the ambiguously rational protagonist of Solaris. Like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Solaris owes much of its immersive power to the fact that it almost never leaves its main character’s point of view. Kelvin––a widower who has abandoned his family on Earth to travel to a remote space station––is as much a detective as a scientist, trying to parse out what led one of his colleagues to commit suicide while experiencing mysterious phenomena that seem to emanate from the planet the station orbits. Extended scenes of Kelvin watching video recordings replace flashbacks, and shots are composed around tantalizing, half-open doors. Because of his Lithuanian accent, Banionis’ voice was dubbed over by a Russian actor; however, as Kelvin is above all an observer, it’s Banionis’ physical presence––namely his sad, intense stare––that carries the film along.
Solaris led to more starring roles in the Soviet Union and East Germany. Banionis continued to be associated with the Drama Theater throughout his life, starring in its productions of Death Of A Salesman, Hedda Gabler, and The Inspector General; from 1980 to 1988, he also served as the company’s artistic director.
Later in life, Banionis worked occasionally in the Russian film and television industries, most notably in a series of made-for-TV movies that cast him as Nero Wolfe, the “armchair detective” of Rex Stout’s cult mystery novels. In 2013, he received the Lithuanian National Prize for his services to the arts.