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Oleg Vidov dies; Soviet actor who defected to U.S. was 73

Veteran Russian actor Oleg Vidov, seen in July

Veteran Russian actor Oleg Vidov, seen in July 2016, in Malibu, Calif., defected to the United States in the 1980s. He appeared in films including "Red Heat" and "Wild Orchid." Credit: AP / Juan Bastos

LOS ANGELES — Oleg Vidov, a matinee idol in the Soviet Union who defected to the United States at the height of the Cold War and then enjoyed a long film and TV career in Hollywood, has died.

His wife, Joan Borsten Vidov, said he died Monday at their home near Los Angeles of complications from cancer. He was 73.

The blond, blue-eyed film star’s hero roles made Vidov a top box office draw in the U.S.S.R. starting in the 1960s. Russian audiences flocked to see him in fairy tales, romantic films and a 1972 cowboy movie called “The Headless Horseman,” which sold a reported 300 million tickets.

His work got attention from international filmmakers, but his efforts to work abroad were blocked by the communist state, which also thwarted a foray into directing. So in 1985 Vidov orchestrated an escape to the West through Yugoslavia. He was granted political asylum in the United States and landed in Southern California, where he was dubbed the “Soviet Robert Redford.”

He kicked off his Hollywood career with a small part in 1988’s “Red Heat” with Arnold Schwarzenegger after director Walter Hill determined Vidov was too handsome to play the film’s bad guy, a Soviet drug kingpin. “ ‘The camera just doesn’t think you are bad,’ ” Hill told Vidov, his wife recalled yesterday. “But he loved working with Arnold.”

He went on to appear in 1990’s “Wild Orchid” with Mickey Rourke and Warren Beatty’s “Love Affair” in 1994. Days before his death, Vidov and his family re-watched “13 Days,” the 2000 political thriller in which he appeared alongside Kevin Costner as Valerian Zorin, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis.

His TV roles included appearances on “Criminal Minds,” “Alias” and “The West Wing.”

Vidov’s arrival in the United States as the Cold War roiled made headlines in this country and got him blackballed in the U.S.S.R. State-owned TV channels stopped playing his movies, but eventually bowed to popular demand and broadcast them without his name.

In late 1985 he testified on Soviet cultural life at a U.S. congressional hearing, saying that Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev was making sweeping changes that were fervently welcomed by the Soviet people. “If Gorbachev continues making his reforms, we may see a significant change in the quality of life in the Soviet Union,” he told lawmakers.

Vidov eventually became an American citizen.

“I cannot understand the oppression in the Soviet Union. In films, I make a bridge between East and West through films which show people many things,” he told The Associated Press in 1985. “Film actors have one nationality, one language without any border.”

In addition to acting, Vidov started a production company that restored Russian animated films dating back to the 1930s.

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