Alexander Godunov, 45, the flaxen-haired ballet dancer whose headline-making defection from the Soviet Union helped catapult him into a successful acting career, was found dead May 18 at his home here.

Paramedics called to the house found him dead shortly before noon, Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Bob Minutello said. Mr. Godunov had been seeing a physician, who will list the death as "natural causes," the sergeant said. No other details were immediately available.

Mr. Godunov came to the United States in 1979 after spending 13 years with the Bolshoi Ballet. He joined the American Ballet Theatre in New York, dancing there for the next three years until he had a falling out with the ABT's artistic director, Mikhail Baryshnikov, also a Soviet defector. The two had studied together at the Bolshoi, but an angry Mr. Godunov said his old friend "threw me away like a potato peel."

He began his acting career as an Amish farmer in the Harrison Ford thriller "Witness" in 1985. Later movie roles included a supercilious conductor in "The Money Pit," with Tom Hanks, and a psychotic killer opposite Bruce Willis in "Die Hard."

Mr. Godunov was touring the United States with the Bolshoi in August 1979 when he made worldwide news by requesting political asylum, saying he felt artistically restrained in his homeland.

A day later, he pleaded with authorities to let him speak with his wife, Lyudmilla Vlasova, who had boarded a plane for home. U.S. officials grounded the plane for 73 hours, but Vlasova -- a Bolshoi soloist -- opted to return to the Soviet Union. It was his only marriage, and it ended in divorce in 1982.

Mr. Godunov, who became a U.S. citizen in 1987, was born on Sakhalin Island in the former Soviet Union. He quickly showed talent as a dancer, and his mother enrolled him in the Latvian Dance School. While dancing in the Soviet Union, he was honored with the gold medal in the Moscow International Competition in 1973. He had made his debut with the Bolshoi Ballet two years earlier in a production of "Swan Lake." CAPTION: ALEXANDER GODUNOV