It was one of the few gifts america accepted from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The agile body of dancer Alexander Godunov, carefully sculpted from years of rigorous training, was his ticket to U.S. acclaim. Which made it all the more unbelievable when, on May 18, 1995, that body was discovered in his West Hollywood apartment, lifeless and ravaged at age 45 by acute alcoholism.
By the time he died, the flaxen-tressed entertainer was already headed for footnote status. His dancing days were all but over, and his Hollywood career — which reached its peak in 1988 in the Bruce Willis blockbuster Die Hard — had taken a disappointing nose-dive. His demise was a cheerless finale in an odyssey that started with a promising bang.
Godunov, along with Rudolf Nureyev and former classmate Mikhail Baryshnikov, achieved international fame as one of the world’s premier ballet dancers in the early ’70s. ”There was a mystique and aura that came with them,” explains jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, Godunov’s first manager and ex-girlfriend.
America, in turn, seduced Godunov, and the Bolshoi Ballet star defected during a 1979 tour stop in New York City. His wife, ballerina Lyudmila Vlasova, voluntarily returned to Russia. The distance took its toll, and they divorced in 1982. Soon after, Godunov and new love Jacqueline Bisset became favorites on the Hollywood scene. He also impressed audiences with a triad of film appearances: his debut in the 1985 Amish drama Witness, a comedic turn opposite Tom Hanks in The Money Pit (1986), and his role as a German psychopath in Die Hard.
But hampered by his refusal to play Russians, dancers, or more Die Hard-esque villains, Godunov found himself starring in high-profile flops (North) and schlocky B movies (The Runestone, and his final project, 1996’s straight-to-video The Dogfighters). ”He was turning down stuff all the time,” says friend Anthony Hickox, who directed Godunov in 1991’s Waxwork II: Lost in Time. ”He didn’t want to end up like [Jean-Claude] Van Damme.”
He would never get the chance. Doctors attributed his death to ”natural causes,” though his publicist said that a dependency on alcohol was probably a major factor. Rodkin claims ”he drank a bottle of vodka a day, minimum, from the time he was 14.”
Whatever the cause, severe loneliness also seemed to have plagued Godunov during his declining years. Says Rodkin: ”Alexander was a petulant, morose, passionate manic-depressive. He was…into the drama of being the mad Russian.” Sadly, that drama became the catalyst for an untimely curtain call.
Time Capsule: May 18, 1995
At the movies, an $18.6 million opening makes the submarine thriller Crimson Tide, with Denzel Washington, the top film at the box office. ON TV, 34 million Americans tune in to see Nurse Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) get jilted at the altar in ER‘s first-place season finale. In music, Montell Jordan’s ”This Is How We Do It” continues its reign atop the Billboard singles chart. And in the news, congressional Republicans rip into a new Clinton administration policy dictating that all future Cuban ”boat people” should be sent back to their homeland.