'Starting from scratch' before making it big

Actor Vladimir Fridman abandoned a successful stage career in his native Russia, working as a garbage collector before earning his place on the Israeli stage and screen.

vladimir fridman 88 298 (photo credit: Hot TV)
vladimir fridman 88 298
(photo credit: Hot TV)
More than once in the past few years, Russian-born actor Vladimir Fridman has seemed to be everywhere in Israeli theater and film. Audiences know his face, if not his name, from more than 40 movies, a number of which have screened at festivals around the world. He's earned notice for performances in warmly reviewed movies like Letters from Rishikesh, Yana's Friends and Broken Wings, and for much of this year he appeared simultaneously on two of the country's highest profile TV shows, HOT 3's Ha'Alufa ("The Champ") and Channel 24's Yeladot Raot ("Bad Girls"). But while his career is clearly thriving now, Fridman's near-ubiquity didn't come easily. His studies at one of Moscow's most prestigious acting schools did little for his career once he got to Israel, and the actor who's now almost a daily presence for Israeli TV fans worked for a period as a garbage worker after his arrival. He says he never considered abandoning professional acting here, telling himself during difficult times that "Israel doesn't need me, but I need Israel." Fridman arrived in his adopted country after a decade of theatrical success in Russia, but says he realized past acclaim would count for little here. The decision to immigrate was based on growing disenchantment with Russia - the way the government related to regular citizens and what he saw as widespread corruption and a lack of freedom, he says. But at the same time, the decision to move to Israel felt like leaving home twice - quitting the Russian stage, he recalled, felt as significant as leaving his house. He reassured himself with a line from a role he'd played in Mrozhak's Immigrants, and with lyrics to song he wrote during the trip: "I'll start from scratch, but success will come." For someone with a noticeable Russian accent, however, finding work on the Israeli stage wasn't easy. The experience may have been bruising for his ego, but he said he made a conscious decision not to show casting directors his diploma from Moscow's prominent Gitis acting school, or to talk excessively about the work he did in his previous life. "The actor acts, not the diploma," he said in an interview in Netanya last month. "The diploma doesn't act, doesn't walk on stage. I do." Initially, though, directors seemed to see his Russian background more than his ability to convey a character's emotional state or his function in a plot. He found work, after months of struggle, but was dismissed by a director he chooses not to name after he pointed out the vast gap between what he was earning and the compensation given to Israeli-born actors in the same show. "What do you want?" he recalls the director telling him. "You have a Russian accent." The comment marked the end of Fridman's participation in that particular production, but not in his desire to secure a place for himself in Israeli theater. "I came from a traditional theater where no matter how bad things were, tomorrow we always have a play to perform," he said. For a time, however, he set acting aside, finding himself in a role he never would have considered in Russia, working as a garbage collector to make ends meet. "We left because of me, so it was my responsibility to feed the family," he said. "I couldn't think at that time about acting." He returned to the profession when his domestic situation stabilized, and fans of his most recent TV performances will find a pleasant irony in the fact that a man who once struggled to survive is now best known for a character on the other end of the economic spectrum. On Ha'Alufa, the nightly soap opera that concludes later this month, Fridman has gained new levels of recognition playing Josef Ognissian, a business mogul and immigrant to Israel who bears more than a passing resemblance to other "Russian oligarchs" now in Israel. The character is almost unimaginably wealthy, using his vast financial resources to acquire Jerusalem's professional soccer team, as well as the companionship of the show's feistiest sabra, a calculating but vulnerable trophy wife played by Liraz Charki. His Israeli acting career was given a decisive push in the late Nineties after he was spotted onstage by the wife of Amos Oz, who recommended Fridman to her husband for a play based on one of Oz's books. The role kicked off a steady accumulation of parts, most of which have been as other Russian characters familiar to most Israelis. His accent, a hindrance at the start of his career, has ultimately helped him establish a niche in the local acting community, allowing him to play Russian characters who've contributed to Israeli society at all levels. In Broken Wings, named 2002's best Israeli movie by the Academy for Television and Film, Fridman played Dr. Valentin Goldman. A TV movie two years earlier, The Battle of Tel Hai, saw him portray one of the country's most famous Russian immigrants, early Zionist leader Josef Trumpeldor. It's been a dramatic turnaround from early attempts to re-establish his acting career. He still remembers the period, he says, when his wife would show him pictures of his Russian stage work "because I was sure that it was only in my imagination that there were days when I was acting." These days, happily, all he has to do is turn on the TV.