Greek theater loses a modern pioneer

Nikos Kourkoulos always claimed that time had been good to him, even after learning six years ago that he had throat cancer, which he succumbed to on Tuesday at the age of 73. He is survived by his four children. A man of passion, vision and strength, Kourkoulos represented an entire era of Greek cinema and theater. His colleagues remember him as a consistent, honest and hardworking man who poured all of his energy and mental resources into modernizing the National Theater, which he headed for 13 years. On the big screen, Kourkoulos played a plethora of roles, easily switching from the charming beau to the cad, and from the ruthless villain to a model of moral rectitude. His manly looks gained him a reputation as one of the most handsome men in Greece, wooing several generations of female fans. Charismatic and emitting a strong sense of presence, Kourkoulos was at the prime of his life and career in the 1960s. But, the actor never placed all his bets on his looks. He worked with dogged determination to conquer the stage and achieved it through a very demanding repertory. In an in-depth interview the actor gave to Kathimerini’s supplement View in 2002, Kourkoulos had spoken frankly of his approach to his health problems: «I never believed I was going to get away unscathed. Quite the contrary; I always thought, ‘Why not me too?’ I watched my parents pass away and lost two brothers – one, a captain, was in a shipwreck in the Atlantic, and the other, a mechanical engineer, died after falling from scaffolding. I always knew how close life is to death. But I have the strength to fight on.» Kourkoulos put up a hard fight against cancer for six years and not once during the course of his illness did he leave his post at the National Theater, staying on with the support of his closest associates and friends, and his partner Marianna Latsi. Kourkoulos was buried in the Zografou cemetery on Wednesday. The National Opera closed its doors for three days in a gesture of mourning. Condolences were sent by President Karolos Papoulias, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and the heads of all Greek political parties. Other than the theater, Kourkoulos was also passionate about sports (he played for Athens soccer team Panathinaikos for a few years), but the stage won him over – quite unexpectedly, he said, because he only considered becoming an actor after reading a book on the theater. Born in 1934 in the Athenian neighborhood of Zografou, Kourkoulos pushed aside his dream of becoming a soccer player for Panathinaikos and decided to attend the National Theater Academy, under the tutelage of Manos Katrakis. He graduated in 1958 and a year later appeared in the cast with Elli Lambeti and Dimitris Horn for a production of «The Lady of the Camellias,» which was followed in the same year by a performance of «Medea.» Kourkoulos played a variety of roles in a variety of genres: «Our Town» (1960), «Julius Caesar» (1964), «Dress the Dead» (1964), «Lulu» (1965) and «The Tower» (1971) are but a few of the productions in which he starred, while he also appeared on Broadway with Melina Mercouri in 1967 for a run of shows of the Tony Award-winning «Never on Sunday,» directed by Jules Dassin. In 1974, Kourkoulos founded the Kappa Theater, where he directed and forged collaborations with leading figures, such as Dassin and Minoas Volanakis. Among the plays he staged for his own ensemble were «The Threepenny Opera» (1975), «The Seagull» (1976), «Return» (1977), «Over the Bridge» (1986) and «One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest» (1987), among others. During the same period (1975-1980), Kourkoulos served as the board president of Union of Theater Managers. His last appearance on stage was in Sophocles’ «Philoctetes,» directed by Diagoras Chronopoulos for the Greek National Theater. The year 1994 opened a new chapter in the actor’s life when he was appointed director of the National Theater. His work there was truly impressive: He created the children’s and experimental theaters of the company, established workshops for actors and directors, and initiated the International Stage (which takes plays around the world) and the summer academy. In 1997, he broke new ground at the National by establishing a program promoting Greek revues at the Kotopouli Theater, while also revamping the National Theater’s drama school. In 2006, Kourkoulos was able to realize one of his longstanding dreams and signed an agreement with the government for a complete overhaul of the National Theater’s headquarters and the theater on Aghiou Constantinou Street in central Athens. It is also worth noting that while Kourkoulos was at the helm of the National, attendance of the ensemble’s productions tripled from 83,000 in the 1994-95 season to 285,000 in 2004-2005. Shortly after taking over the post of director in 1995, Kourkoulos had stated, «It was a rotten institution with nothing left but its bones.» Now, 12 years later and thanks to his invaluable contribution, the Greek National Theater is a vibrant, productive and creative institution with a bright future. A shining star of the big and small screen Nikos Kourkoulos was a great star of the Greek silver screen in the 1960s, appearing in popular films such as «Lola,» «Enemy of the People,» «Society Hour Zero,» and more, becoming a household name and an icon. The actor has also left his mark in television, starring in numerous series. With over 30 films on his resume, Kourkoulos has received two best actor awards from the Thessaloniki Film Festival, in 1965 and 1970, for his trademark style of acting which combined an intellectual profundity with a roguish manliness that appealed to the broader public and earned him the nickname of the «Greek Alain Delon.» He was discovered by Yiannis Dalianidis, a leading figure of Greek cinema at the time, in 1960, and signed a multi-film deal that lasted 13 years with Finos Films, a prolific production company that has created almost every landmark film of that era. In the photo, Kourkoulos appears in a scene from «Naked in the Streets.»