They have become part of the Hollywood scene, the tall, blond Russian leading man with the smoldering stare of a young Kirk Douglas and the retired American character actor with a fondness for black casual wear and white shoes. They commute between Palm Springs and rooms at the Beverly Wilshire. They field offers. They entertain the media.
But for just a few days last spring, Oleg Vidov and John Frederick stepped from the sound stages where they have made their livings creating illusions and got a pungent, frightening taste of reality -- Kremlin intrigue, orders from Moscow, hurried escapes across communist borders.
Frederick's friend Vidov is now safe in America, ready to launch a career as the heralded "Robert Redford of Soviet cinema." But to Frederick, tracing the 13-year story that brought them here, it still seems a very close thing.
If he hadn't warned Oleg that his matinee-idol reputation in Yugoslavia would not save him from the KGB, if the soccer match hadn't distracted the guards at the Austrian-Yugoslav border, if he hadn't known Walter Annenberg, if the president of the United States hadn't been a part of his vast web of mutual friends, where would he and Oleg be today?
"He's here. It's a dream come true," said Frederick, who prefers his Broadway stage name to his film credit name, John Merrick. It brought him a host of character parts after Cecil B. De Mille lured him from New York to play the captain of the palace guards in "The Ten Commandments," but he leads a quiet life in Palm Springs now, and plans to return to it once he is sure Oleg is well launched. He will take this small opportunity to fling a few more rocks at the conniving Soviet officials and clumsy American bureaucrats who tried to get in Vidov's way.
Frederick, who declines to give his age, gestures from a chair in his hotel suite as he takes the story back to its beginning in 1972. Vidov, preparing for a meeting on a proposed mini-series, nervously pops in and out. Frederick says he can probably explain what happened "a little better" than his young Russian friend.
"Mr. Federico Fellini and I had seen a film together called 'The Red Mantle.' He said, 'My God, who's that boy? I'd like to have him for my film Satyricon.' And so he flew me off to Stockholm." Frederick was acting just as a friend of the Italian director, who thought Vidov was Swedish, since that is where the film had been made, but Frederick discovered they were looking for a Russian who had only been on loan. He had long since left Sweden, and the Soviet Embassy dragged its feet when asked to locate him.
With the persistence of anyone who has made a living from acting for most of his life, Frederick tracked down Vidov in Yugoslavia, where he was making "The Battle of the River Neretva." He found a young actor just beginning to appreciate the breadth of his powers and mulling over the opportunities he had briefly sampled in Sweden. "That's when he first sort of indicated that he was interested in a return to the West, because he had just had a fabulous experience," Frederick said. "He started speaking English."
Dino De Laurentiis, producer of "Ragtime," "Dune" and other epics, "without even seeing him, offered him a seven-year contract . . . That prompted me to get in touch with Moscow and see what the chances were. They promptly turned down the De Laurentiis thing, as they do most things." Frederick had finished his work in Italy and returned to California. There was one more brief meeting with Vidov later, again in Yugoslavia during the filming of "Waterloo." Vidov remained on his mind, just as the Russian began to take risks that would eventually give him no alternative but escape.
"They brought him back to Moscow, and he then had such a taste for the West. He was also a director, and some of these ideas were starting to infiltrate into his directing work. That's when the opposition truly started. Where he had very positive ideas about the West, freedom and all these things," Frederick said. "They started to persecute him because he made a film that criticized the transportation system in Russia."
He had enjoyed the privileges accorded all prominent Soviet actors and directors: a good salary, an apartment, a car. He had married a woman who was friendly with a daughter of Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev. Such connections are often helpful, but when Vidov and his wife divorced, with her keeping their one son, that relationship may have only added to his troubles -- the ex-wife was bitter and did her best to poison Vidov's career, which by 1978 had begun to plummet severely, Frederick said.
"He had had an enormous career as an actor, an enormous following," Frederick said. "He would also go out and do personal appearances, in Siberia and places, so he had a close contact with the people. They even resented that, I guess . . . His roles became less and less."
When Frederick arrived in Moscow for a sightseeing tour in 1983, he found his young friend frustrated, under steady surveillance. "He said when we went in a room if he clapped his hands like this, I was not to say another word," Frederick said.
"He was a marvelous host," he recalled. Vidov and a woman friend took Frederick on a picnic at a lake 80 miles from Moscow. Vidov said to him, "You see that little blue car up there that followed us all day? That's probably KGB."
Frederick toured the breadth of the country and thought he had a better grasp of the insecurities of the Russian people. "They've built a buffer around their country because of this awful invasion during World War II. That sounds sympathetic to the system, but it is not. I'm sympathetic to the people." His friend Vidov, he realized, had had enough. He left Moscow convinced that Vidov was "going to start taking very, very definite steps. And he was very interested in this girl."
Vidov married the woman, who was a native of Yugoslavia. She then returned to her country, and a year later Vidov was permitted to join her. He called Frederick immediately. The American recalled he had made it clear to his friend that "whenever you're ready to make the decision, things will be taken care of here." To whet Vidov's appetite, Frederick suggested an experiment. He would be in Athens on a sightseeing tour soon. Why not march into the Greek Embassy and see if Vidov could get a temporary visa for a little vacation of his own.
"I was on the Parthenon, standing there, and someone called my name. I looked around and there's Oleg Vidov from Moscow," Frederick said. The Russian enjoyed the holiday, then returned to Yugoslavia, his desire to move West permanently reconfirmed.
The plan was to apply for a Yugoslav passport, which would require a year's wait, to ease himself out of Moscow's grasp. Until then, Frederick said, Vidov remained a Soviet citizen who could be easily called back home. The best idea might have been to lay very low, but Vidov liked to take chances and make movies, and that was his near undoing.
A West German company had a part for a villain -- "a real monster," Frederick said -- in a Viking-era saga called "Secret of the Black Dragon." Vidov grabbed it and word of this got back to Moscow. "He was working without permission in a film," Frederick said. "There you have to get permission every time . . . Three days before he was to get his Yugoslav passport, they gave him 72 hours to return to Moscow."
Vidov called Frederick. Up to then, the American had refrained from advising the Russian on defection. "We were in awfully close touch . . . but I was still not having anything to do with the big decision. That had to be just one person." But when he heard Vidov express the hope that the Yugoslavs would protect this popular star, as well known in Belgrade as in Leningrad, Frederick decided to assert himself.
"They'll be there with shackles within 72 hours if you don't do something," Frederick to him. "You'll be in Moscow in two days."
Galvanized by Frederick's fears, on May 27 Vidov decided to try something he had been considering for emergencies. He had a friend in Vienna, an Austrian actor named Marion Srienc with whom he had once worked, who agreed to drive to an airport just inside Yugoslavia and fly to Belgrade. There he took Vidov to the Austrian Embassy and persuaded the staff to stamp an Austrian visa on Vidov's Soviet passport.
"Now they really are frightened, because they know someone is watching them go in and out of the embassy," Frederick said. "They went immediately to the airport with no baggage, no clothes, nothing. They got in the plane and flew to the border airport where Marion had left his car.
"They thought this way was better than to try to fly out of the country. You'd have to stop at the airport and get papers. Marion thought, 'I'll have a better chance in my little car. The border guards know me.' When they drove to the border, a big soccer game was on television, and the guards were so engrossed in it that they just passed him through without even looking."
In Vienna, however, Vidov, Srienc and particularly Frederick were in for a shock. Frederick had agreed to be Vidov's financial sponsor. He was aware of the expedited visas often given to defectors of Vidov's prominence. "He's really without clothes, without money, totally destitute," Frederick recalled, but none of that moved the people at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, he said.
"He was just treated terribly in Vienna," Frederick said. "They'd take him over there and talk to him through a plate glass window and ridicule his broken English. They just said, 'Oh, it will be nine months. We'll give you some kind of room down near the dumpy part of town. You stay there nine months and we'll get in touch with you.' "
A State Department spokesman said he had no knowledge of Vidov's experience but doubted if it were true, and that if it were, it was probably the fault of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, not the embassy.
Frederick told Srienc to get Vidov a visa for a temporary visit to Italy and drive him to Rome to stay with an old friend, the American actor Richard Harrison. He asked his congressman, Rep. Alfred A. McCandless (R-Calif.), for help. Then "I decided to get in touch with my neighbor in Palm Springs, Walter Annenberg." A secretary reached Annenberg in Europe and he called Frederick. "He said, 'You know the president, why don't you get in touch with him?' "
On the subject of Ronald Reagan, Frederick becomes aglow. "He's been an inspiration of mine since I was a little child. He was our sports announcer in Des Moines, Iowa. His lady friend was my aunt's best friend," Frederick said. He remembers Reagan inviting him out to Warner Bros. within an hour of hearing this 16-year-old acquaintance was in town for a visit. They ran into each other later during Frederick's Hollywood career, including an appearance on the television show Reagan hosted, "Death Valley Days."
"I'm amazed that he remembers any of that, and I'm not saying that he really does," Frederick said. But he dispatched a long telegram to Reagan explaining Vidov's dilemma, and after that, "everything changed in Rome. I have no proof, but I just know that he was pushed right up to the top of the quota." (A White House official said he had not yet been able to confirm Frederick's account.)
A visa came quickly. Frederick soon had Vidov in Los Angeles, signed up with Joan Hyler of the William Morris agency, embracing old friends like Norman Jewison at the "Agnes of God" screening and fielding offers from the likes of Franco Zeffirelli. Victory was sweet, but not enough to erase Frederick's bitterness about American bureaucrats in Vienna.
In Palm Springs, Frederick is accustomed to the strong bonds from friendship among the veterans of Hollywood and the tradition of helping people in trouble. "There's an awful lot of charity. They're wonderful events, the charity events. They're not dull. Hal Wallis is there and his lovely wife Martha Hyer. And Barbara Sinatra's terribly active in everything. Contributions she makes are constant, and Frank will come along at times and is always just wonderful. And Bob Hope wanders in. How are you? Well, hello there, Mr. Hope . . . Red Skelton, Gene Autry. They're magnificent human beings. Mrs. William Powell, Ruby Keeler, Billie Dove, Ginny Simms and Lucille Ball.. It just goes on and on and on."
How does Oleg react to the Palm Springs ambiance?
"He can't react because he doesn't even know who they are. It's a terrible transition but he learns fast. He gets a taste of all this along the way. He wouldn't know these people."
Albert Johnson, director of the San Francisco film festival, dubbed Vidov the Robert Redford of Soviet cinema, which Frederick considers an eye-catching label, although Oleg "is much more sensual." He will stick with him a bit longer, but his friend's future seems limitless, and he can soon step back.
"They say, 'What do you get out of all this?' Really, I don't want anything out of all this. Truly. It's just a chance for American audiences to know and appreciate this exceptional talent."