‘Oleg’: A widow's tribute to a Russian film icon

Former Jerusalem Post reporter Joan Borsten’s tribute to her late husband, Russian film icon Oleg Vidov.

 Oleg Vidov’s first US movie role was in ‘Red Heat’ as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s partner. (photo credit: JOAN BORSTEN)
Oleg Vidov’s first US movie role was in ‘Red Heat’ as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s partner.
(photo credit: JOAN BORSTEN)

Outside of Russia, not many people other than in countries to which Russians migrated in large numbers have ever heard of Oleg Vidov, who was known as the Robert Redford of Russia. Actually, he was taller and better looking than Redford, and with his finely chiseled bone structure, was a natural Adonis.

In 1985, he managed to defect. While in Italy, he met former Jerusalem Post reporter Joan Borsten, who was then working for the Los Angeles Times. They were introduced by a mutual friend and were married in 1989. 

Soon after their initial meeting, the couple moved to Los Angeles, from where they did a lot of traveling abroad, always intending to visit Israel but not getting around to doing so until September 2016. Borsten was keen to show her husband the country in which since 1973 she had lived for 11 years. She wanted to introduce him to friends and former colleagues, but it turned out that more people knew him than knew her, even though many had not met him personally.

Oleg Vidov: Recognized everywhere in Israel

With close to 10 percent of Israel’s adult population hailing from the former Soviet Union, it was not surprising that Vidov was instantly recognized almost everywhere they went, and he was endlessly asked to pose for selfies. In Tel Aviv, people literally ran after him; and in Ashkelon and Bat Yam, two of his fan clubs held mega tributes in his honor – something that made him very happy. He was even prepared to move to Israel – but that did not eventuate.

Oleg Vidov died in May 2017. Even though he had been battling cancer for some time, his death came as a shock because he had been such a vital personality, never allowing anything to break his spirit.

 Joan Borsten with Oleg Vidov in Rome, 1985. (credit: JOAN BORSTEN) Joan Borsten with Oleg Vidov in Rome, 1985. (credit: JOAN BORSTEN)

Borsten was unable to function for several months, but eventually she pulled herself together, determined to fulfill her promise to complete her husband’s autobiography. There was one major snag. Although Borsten speaks several languages, she never learned to master Russian; and Vidov, who was a poet and essayist as well as an actor, wrote in Russian.

Before she could continue where her husband had left off, Borsten had to know what he had written. She needed a translator and was determined to get the best of the best. The woman she approached was busy but agreed to read what Vidov had written in order to know who else to recommend. The upshot was that the woman translated the material herself, telling Borsten that once she started reading the material, she couldn’t put it down.

After receiving the translation, Borsten went on a quest to interview people who had played a part in her husband’s life. Some were elderly or sick or both, and not all were resident in the US. It was a race against the clock to get to them while they were still living. 

Borsten was back in Israel over the past month to promote the documentary film Oleg, a project she initiated and produced after completing Vidov’s autobiography. The film has been screened at several dozen film festivals and won more than 10 “Best” awards. In Israel, it is being screened on HOT’s Channel 8.

The 90-minute film was directed by Nadia Tass, the celebrated Australian theater and film director and producer who was born in Greece. It was released by the Jove Film company that was established by Borsten and Vidov. In addition to numerous interviews, the film features clips of Vidov at various stages of his career. Anyone who doubted a Robert Redford or James Dean resemblance could be assured by these clips that the comparison was justified.

The lives of Oleg Vidov and Joan Borsten

As a journalist born into Hollywood’s entertainment industry, Borsten has endless contacts with people of influence – and not just in America.

Her late father, Orin Borsten, began working in Hollywood in 1944 as a publicist and television writer. He also served in executive positions at MGM and Universal Studios.

Joan Borsten’s own autobiography, if she gets to write it, would be no less interesting than that of her husband’s. Vidov had permission to appear in a film that was being shot in Yugoslavia. A friend managed to sneak him across the border to Austria and to freedom.

From Austria he went to Italy, where he stayed with a friend until arrangements were made for him to enter America.

It should be noted that Vidov loved Russia. What he didn’t like was the regime. But he remained a Russian in his soul, and after Perestroika he returned to Moscow many times.

“Kill the Russians.”

The line Oleg Vidov refused to say

When he reinvented himself to act in films in America, it disturbed him that Russians were always depicted as bad guys. He once refused a role in which the character was required to say, “Kill the Russians.” Unless the line was removed, he could not play the part, he said. The line was not removed, and Vinov remained true to his moral compass. He had left Russia because, like many famous people, he was constantly being followed by secret agents, and he wanted his personal freedom. But once the regime changed, he had no problem going back, though according to Borsten, he insisted on traveling on an American passport, in case he got into trouble for defecting. The American passport was by way of an insurance policy, that if anything did go amiss, the Americans would protect him.

Back to Borsten. Her first visit to Israel was in 1966. It was during a summer break, and she wanted to go abroad. Her mother said that she would pay for the trip on condition that Borsten went to Israel, where the family had relatives.

After returning home, she went to Berkeley and graduated with a degree in comparative literature. She then went to Panama to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. She subsequently earned a graduate degree in bilingual education.

In 1973, she was in Israel again, this time to study Hebrew at a WUJS ulpan. She lived in Arad until the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and then like so many civilians, offered to help where help was needed. She and other foreign students headed for Yeruham, where they helped the local population and organized concerts for soldiers.

After the war she returned to Jerusalem, from where she went back to California to visit her parents and wrote an article called “Back in the Diaspora.” Someone suggested that she send it to The Jerusalem Post. Philip Gillon, who was one of the most beloved of Jerusalem Post columnists, ran her story. After Borsten was back in Jerusalem again, the Post began to give her freelance assignments. It took little time before she joined the staff, writing about Druze communities and Arab villages.

On another of her visits home to Los Angeles, her father was appalled by her meager wages compared to what she would be earning in America, so he introduced her to a prominent editor at the Los Angeles Times. The editor was interested in people stories. So Borsten continued with The Jerusalem Post and was simultaneously a roving entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. The stories she wrote for Americans were rewritten differently for Israeli readers.

Being an American citizen with an American passport was extremely useful. She reported from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Iraq and Tunisia, interviewing people such as Jihan Sadat, the wife of the president of Egypt; and Wasilla Bourguiba, the first lady of Tunisia, whose husband, Habib Bourguiba, had served as prime minister and president of his country.

In Syria, where there were still 5,000 Jews, the situation was very scary, Borsten recalls. She entered a store in which there were engraved metal plates, and saw that on a high shelf there was a plate with Hebrew writing which caught her attention. The owners of the store were instantly suspicious and wanted to know what she was looking at. When she pointed to the plate, they immediately pulled down the shutters over the window and locked the door, demanding to know who she was. She admitted to being Jewish, and they opened a hidden trapdoor to show her other plates with Hebrew engraving, which was apparently forbidden in Syria at that time. She purchased some of the plates, had the artist sign his name on the back, and as she was living in Israel, convinced a US military officer based in Damascus with the UN peace-keeping force to take them across the Golan Heights to Jerusalem. Today, they are in her home in California.

Borsten’s job for the Los Angeles Times was basically to write about film productions and the politics of the entertainment industry, with the focus on the people involved.

In the final analysis, she did much more than that, such as traveling to Poland to interview Solidarity activists long before Solidarity won the 1989 elections. She also traveled to Spain and India and other countries before she first met Vidov. At that time, she thought he was a Soviet spy. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, and it was instantly disproved by their mutual friend. When she later confessed her first impression to Vidov, he laughed uproariously.

Among the many entertainment personalities that Borsten interviewed were Ingrid Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, and Roman Polanski.

When she was in India, she visited a well-known fortune teller who told her that she would marry a man from a country other than her own. Borsten didn’t think much of it at the time, but it transpired that the fortune teller was right on the mark.

After moving back to Los Angeles, Borsten gave up her job with the Los Angeles Times and became vice president of US operations for Carthago Films, and after that chief operating officer for Just Betzer films. Both enterprises listed major achievements in their company profiles. In the early 1990s, on one of his visits to Moscow, Vidov was talking to the people who headed the famed Soyuzmultifilm Studio of animated films. They didn’t see much of a future for animated films and wanted to get rid of them. Vidov said he would take them off their hands. They were in bad condition, but the Jove film production and distribution company which he had formed with Borsten paid for the restoration and digitization of more than 1,200 animated films that had been produced from 1936 to 1991, and succeeded in distributing them around the globe. At that point, Soyuzmultifilm wanted to reclaim the rights. This led to a protracted legal battle until the problem was solved by a Russian oligarch who bought the rights to the animation library.

There’s much more to Borsten’s story. She and her husband also ran a clinic dedicated to helping drug addicts and alcoholics. Many of the patients were Russian immigrants who had long dreamed of freedom but were unable to cope with it.

Borsten will probably be visiting Israel with greater frequency as she continues to reconnect with people from her past but has by no means given up on the many Russian friends and extended family she acquired during her years of marriage to Oleg Vidov. ■