An internationally acclaimed Russian dramatic actor of stage and screen, Innokenty Smoktunovsky is best remembered for his portrayal of Hamlet in the 1964 Russian film version. Shakespeare experts Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh consider this work the definitive rendition of the Bard's tragic tale. Whether playing a classical role or a more contemporary one, Smoktunovsky avoided stodgy literal interpretations of his characters, preferring instead to imbue them with qualities and physical traits that would make them complex, surprising, larger than life, and unique to himself, but still somehow real and utterly believable. Paradoxically, despite his meticulous preparation, Smoktunovsky's acting style appeared remarkably natural and free.
As a young man, Smoktunovsky fought on the front lines during WWII and afterwards studied drama at the Krasnoyarsk Pushkin Theatre. He then appeared in a wide assortment of amateur and professionally staged plays and worked with several major theaters, including ones in Norilsk, Volgograd, and Moscow. Between 1957 and 1960, he was part of the Moscow Drama Theatre and from there he worked at the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theatre. While in Moscow, the young thespian gained national recognition for his multi-layered portrayal of Prince Myshkin in a 1958 theatrical production of Dostoyevsky's Idiot. It became one of Smoktunovsky's favorite roles.
Smoktunovsky launched his screen career in 1956, with Ubiystvo Na Ulitse Dante/The Murder in Dante Street. From then on, he often re-created his most popular stage roles for the screen. The leading man's most highly praised films include The Soldiers (1957), Nine Days of One Year (1962), and Mozart and Salieri (1962), in which Smoktunovsky played Mozart. Though his film career continued into the early '90s, he found it increasingly difficult to find decent dramatic roles in post-Communist Russia. In some regards, Smoktunovsky's decline could be compared to that of Sir Laurence Olivier, for the Russian actor, too, began to be rather indiscriminate in choosing later roles. Still, Innokenty Smoktunovsky made many important additions to his country's cinema and for his contributions, he received numerous special awards, including the designation of People's Artist of the Soviet Union (1974) and the Lenin Prize (1964).