Peter Simonischek, a prominent Austrian theater actor who rose to international fame as the shambolic prankster and adoring father in the 2016 Oscar-nominated German film Maren Ades, Toni Erdmann, died on May 29 at his home in Vienna. He was 76 years old.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Brigitte Karner.
Mr. Simonischek was a member of the Burgtheater, the venerable Viennese institution otherwise known as the Burg, one of the oldest and largest ensemble theaters in the world.
He was one of Austria’s last big stars, said Simon Stone, the Vienna-based Australian director who cast Mr Simonischek in his 2021 play Komplizen at the Burg. Mr Simonischek, he said, was a beloved public figure, recognized by taxi drivers and passers-by on the streets of Vienna, where he was more of a celebrity than most movie stars.
He was certainly easy to spot: a handsome bear with shaggy hair from a man who used his physical size to great effect.
His size gave his performances an imposing grandeur, said AJ Goldmann, who covers German theater for The New York Times, that could be tragic or give them a Falstaffian absurdity.
in the comedy Toni Erdman, the story of a workaholic management consultant named Ines (played with curt humor by Sandra Hller), Mr. Simonischek is Winifred, the mortifying father of Iness, a retired music teacher who sets out to free Ines of his profession as a soul crusher by camouflaging himself as Toni Erdmann, a rude and ponderous corporate consultant to his boss, and upsetting everything that is dear to him.
The film, written and directed by Ms Ade, captivated critics at Cannes and the New York Film Festival and was nominated for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (losing to Iran’s The Salesman). AO Scott, writing in The New York Times, called it a study in the radical power of embarrassment and described Mr. Simonischek’s character as a slapstick superhero.
Sometimes it’s a clown, Mr. Stone said of Mr. Simonischek. And sometimes he’s an authority figure or a good-natured leader. He was ready to humble himself completely. He used her beauty and imposing physique as a sort of canvas on which he could paint whatever disgusting or extraordinary quality any of his characters needed.
In Mr. Stones’ play Komplizen, which he says doesn’t quite correctly translate to accomplice, Mr. Simonischek played an industrialist who faces judgment as the world turns against him and Its pairs.
It’s Mr. Stones’ process of writing his scripts in rehearsal, encouraging actors to come to fresh material and making room for improvisation. It’s a grueling process, he said, and Mr. Simonischek excelled at it, encouraging younger cast members who struggled with the practice. Additionally, the production required a rotating stage, making rehearsals even more taxing.
Once you have Peter in your corner, you can achieve anything, Stone said. His brilliance was contagious; he shared it daily with the cast. It’s a quality he’s had since the beginning of his career to make other actors brilliant without ever becoming less brilliant himself.
Peter Simonischek was born on August 6, 1946 in Graz, Austria. His mother was a housewife and his father was a dentist who had hoped his son would study medicine, as Mr Simonischek told an interviewer last year. But after seeing a performance of Hamlet when he was a teenager, he said, I was lost.
He attended the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Graz and found work as an actor in Switzerland and Germany. In 1979 he joined the Schaubhne Berlin, an innovative ensemble theatre, where he became a star. He joined the Bur in 2000.
Besides his wife, who is also an actor, Mr. Simonischek is survived by three sons, Max, Kaspar and Benedikt, and two grandchildren. His first marriage, to Charlotte Schwab, ended in divorce.
Just before his death, Mr Simonischek had played the stage role of the patriarch of a Pakistani American family in an Ayad Akhtars production of The Who and the What at the Renaissance Theater in Berlin, after a hugely popular run at the Burg, where he opened in 2018. (The Renaissance shut down the show when Mr. Simonischek fell ill a few weeks ago.)
The play tells the story of a devout and charismatic Muslim whose daughter wrote a novel about the Prophet Muhammad, scandalizing their traditional community and upsetting their relationship.
Mr Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and is the author of the critically acclaimed 2020 novel Homeland Elegies, said that of all his plays, this production is the oldest and most popular. And unlike its American run in 2014, it was staged with an all-white cast, solely because that’s the cultural and racial makeup of the Burgs set. It’s a scenario that in years past might have given him pause, as he told Mr. Goldmann of The Times in 2018. But Mr. Simonischek and his comrades had won him over.
What was remarkable was this strange chemistry, Mr. Akhtar said in a telephone interview, because Simonischek was at that time the patriarch of Austrian theater, a father figure for Austrian audiences, and he played this Muslim father conservative.
On opening night, the notoriously stoic Viennese audience was in tears, he continued. Maybe not as much as me. Mr. Akhtar said he sobbed onstage at the curtain call, but not far from it. It was one of the highlights of my career.
When Mr. Simonischeks died, Mr. Akhtar was writing a play for him. Mr. Simonischek, he said, was a moving, precise and captivating actor whose heart and generosity were as broad as his talent.
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