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The remarkable European life of a Police Academy star

George Gaynes (centre), as Commandant Lassard, with Steve Guttenberg, Andrew Rubin and Michael Winslow in a scene from the 1984 film 'Police Academy' - Credit: Getty Images

He is best known as Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy films, but, as CHARLIE CONNELLY reports, actor George Gaynes had an incredibly cosmopolitan childhood in Europe, and an eventful Second World War career.

Celebrity came late to George Gaynes. Arguably best known for his role as the amiable simpleton Commandant Eric Lassard in the seven Police Academy films beginning in 1984, he had two years earlier appeared in the worldwide hit Tootsie as faded soap actor John Van Horn who falls for and pursues Dustin Hoffman’s character – a struggling actor who only starts winning roles when he attends auditions as ‘Dorothy’ – convinced he is really a woman. While Hoffman won most of the plaudits (and Jessica Lange won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) the New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael singled out Gaynes’ performance as “a small comic triumph” and said, “once you’ve laughed at him, even the sight of him triggers more laughs”.

Van Horn’s ardent pursuit of Dorothy can occasionally make uncomfortable viewing today, not least when in one scene he all but forces his way into her apartment, but in Commandant Lassard in the Police Academy series Gaynes created a reliably calm and likable comic turn, an anchoring presence in seven films that started out noisy and brash and became less subtle and nuanced from there.

Gaynes was 65 when Tootsie was released, a long-established character actor with a respectable screen CV listing the likes of Bonanza, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Cheers and General Hospital. He was one of those faces you knew but couldn’t name until in the space of two years and two roles George Gaynes became a bona fide film star.

Even then stardom had its drawbacks: Gaynes was rejected for a role in The Neverending Story because he’d become too well-known. “You break your rear for years to be recognised,” he chuckled, “and then you’re rejected for being ‘too recognisable’”.

His late thrust into the limelight was probably the least interesting thing about a man who lived through some of Europe’s most tumultuous times at the heart of the continent’s 20th century political and cultural development before launching a wide-ranging career that took in film, television, the Broadway stage and classical opera.

He was born George Jongejans in Helsinki, then part of the Russian Empire, a few weeks before the Russian Revolution, the son of Gerrit Jongejans , a businessman from the Netherlands, and the remarkable Iya Grigorievna de Gay, a Russian socialite, model and artist.

“My parents divorced soon after I was born,” said Gaynes, “and I went with my mother to Paris. Then she married an Englishman and I was raised by governesses for eight years. Then they divorced, my mother moved to Switzerland and I was a Swiss boy for the next eight years.”

Having moved to Paris with her baby son to escape the fallout from the Revolution, Iya became a leading light in Parisian society. Six feet tall and descended from Russian nobility, her striking appearance and aristocratic bearing made her a favourite of artists and photographers like Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Balthus and Paul Tanqueray. She modelled for the major fashion houses, appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, became a close confidante of both Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau and prompted an awestruck Lady Diana Cooper to describe her as being “from another world”.

Iya broke many hearts in Paris but in 1923 when George was six years old she married an Englishman, Baron Sir Robert Abdy, whom she’d met while modelling for the fashion house Callot Soeurs. The family moved to England but the marriage barely lasted five years, at which Iya and George left England for Geneva.

Although he grew up in his charismatic mother’s shadow it was almost inevitable that George would become a performer of some kind. It was practically in his genes. His grandfather had been a travelling player in Imperial Russia who according to one biographer was “known from one end of the country to the other. One night he was Boris Gudunov, the next Ivan the Terrible and he travelled in caravans with parrots and leopards and cheetahs and tigers”. George’s great-grandfather Nikolai was a popular painter and a close friend of Tolstoy while his uncle, Gregory Gay, became a noted screen actor who appeared in everything from Casablanca to Lassie.

In Switzerland George came under the influence of Feodor Chaliapin, a friend of Iya’s who was one of the leading operatic basses of the day. Noting George’s own resonant singing voice Chaliapin introduced him to the opera world, taking him to performances and introducing him backstage to some of opera’s biggest names of the time. Under Chaliapin’s instruction and encouragement George showed enough promise to win a place at a conservatoire in Milan, but shortly before he was due to graduate the Second World War intervened.

He was in France at the time of the Nazi invasion and immediately made his way to Spain, planning to head back north by sea and join up with resistance fighters in his father’s homeland, the Netherlands.

“I fled to Spain on foot through the Pyrenees but the Spanish put me in jail and then sent me back to France,” he said. “I got back in via the same route and this time managed to stay in Spain.”

From there he made it to Portugal and boarded a boat to England, eventually making his way to London. “There I enlisted in what was left of the Dutch navy and was assigned to a British destroyer,” he recalled. “Because of my knowledge of French, German and English I was made a sort of intelligence officer on board. The Germans talked freely to each other between their planes, ships and submarines and it was my job to keep the British informed of what they were saying.”

He saw action in the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Battle of Anzio and the Adriatic campaign then served a year after the end of the war with occupation forces at Emden, Germany, which he described as “hell on earth”. A shipbuilding town on the Waddenzee, Emden had been reduced to rubble in 1944 in bombing raids and Gaynes found himself in a shattered landscape among a population still utterly traumatised.

After his discharge he spent a year running an opera house in Alsace before an invitation arrived via an old contact to join the New York City Opera. After war-torn Europe Gaynes revelled in the more carefree atmosphere of Manhattan, starring in some of the leading bass roles such as Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro. For all his success, however, Gaynes felt unfulfilled on the opera stage.

“Opera palls after a few years,” he said. “The sets and costumes are tacky, the productions are not well-directed and the acting is rarely good enough.”

His response was to take singing roles of a different kind.

“I took a role on Broadway in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul which led to other Broadway engagements, meaning for several years I was the only performer switching between opera and Broadway musicals,” he said.

In 1950 Cole Porter, a friend of his mother’s, came calling, engaging George to perform in the comic musical Out of this World, but it was his performance as Bob Baker, the editor of a short story magazine, in the Leonard Bernstein-scored Wonderful Town that really established his stage credentials. It was then that he dropped the name Jongejans in favour of Gaynes, a nod to his maternal heritage.

Stage success led to screen roles, beginning tentatively in 1955 as a dancing master in an episode of NBC Television Opera Theatre and culminating with Tootsie and the Police Academy franchise for which he is best remembered.

If there is one moment where all the aspects of his varied career came together it’s a scene in Tootsie where John Van Horn has followed Dorothy home, only for her to shake him off and leave him on the street. Busying herself inside her apartment she hears singing coming from outside. Rushing to the window she looks down to the rain-slicked street to see George Gaynes’ John Van Horn in cravat and sports jacket looking up at her, hands clasped together and belting out I’ll Know from the musical Guys and Dolls in a rich, resonant bass. Dogs start barking, lights flick on in the building, a baby starts crying, but even in the context of a buffoonish Romeo in a cross-dressing comedy, this voice has echoes on the Broadway stage and the opera houses of the US, sounding right back to the shattered skylines of a ruined continent that made George Gaynes.

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