Soviet Leader, Rocky IV
There’s a great cross to bear if you happen to be the actor who singlehandedly ended the Cold War, and no, I’m not talking about Ronald Reagan. Or Sylvester Stallone. I refer, of course, to David Lloyd Austin, the unknown and unsung man in the shadows who, in 1985, stepped into the limelight of a gargantuan Hollywood production, spoke no lines, and yet managed to ignite a bloodless revolution that took down the world’s most hated empire. The film is Rocky IV, and the official character name is “Soviet Leader,” though we know damn well it’s Mikhail Gorbachev. With a single, iconic image – standing proud and warming up the “slow clap” – he grabbed an entire civilization by the lapels, shook it this way and that like a dime store snow globe, and at last brushed away the dying embers of a totalitarian regime.
He was their courage, he was their strength, and he no doubt inspired the actual flesh and blood participants to sit at the table of peace and brotherhood. No David Lloyd Austin, no Geneva. And to hell with Reykjavik. And that glare? The one that stared down the Soviet hardliners and sent them quaking right down to their spit-polished boots? Arguably the decade’s single most important cinematic gesture, encompassing the entire philosophy of glasnost in a split second of moral authority. And only Mr. Austin could have pulled it off. If only the ghost of Alfred Nobel had been listening.
It speaks to the brilliance of the performance that just three years later, Mr. Austin would appear on screen for only the second time, once again as Gorbachev. So what if it was a Naked Gun movie; this was the start of something big, a changing of the guard for impersonation and historical re-creation. The inevitable bio-pic awaited him like so much just desserts; a final payoff for a life dedicated to the craft of acting and its capacity to inspire global change. Only that call never came. Austin did but a handful of minor television roles after that, and nothing whatsoever since 2000. How could this be? Where’s his Quentin Tarantino to say, “You matter. You have heft. We need you, crags and cracks be damned.” Only no one knows where the hell he went. I can’t even prove he’s alive. But if Sly sensed his ability those many years ago, where’s the spirit of reinvention in this, our hour of need?
Again, we think Balboa’s marble-mouthed guttural cries to the Moscow faithful were the turning point. Not so. Had the people cheered and been met by a stoic, decidedly ill-tempered leader, the entire arena would have felt a wrath that would have made the siege at Stalingrad a mere Tupperware party by comparison. No, Gorby had to stand. He had to let them know it was okay. He gave them their country back, without fear of reprisal. So while the natural instinct is to laud Rocky IV for its well-oiled beefcake, James Brown sideshow, and de facto assassination of Apollo Creed, let us not forget the wise old man in the rafters. He saved the world from itself.