Born in Belozerka, in the Kherson Governorate of the Ukrainian SSR, Sergei Bondarchuk spent his childhood in the cities of Yeysk and Taganrog, graduating from the Taganrog School Number 4 in 1938. His first performance as an actor was onstage of the Taganrog Theatre in 1937. He continued studies in the Rostov-on-Don theater school (1938–1942). After his studies, he was conscripted into the Red Army against Nazi Germany and was discharged in 1946.
At the age of 32, he became the youngest Soviet actor ever to receive the top dignity of People's Artist of the USSR. In 1955, he starred with future wife Irina Skobtseva in Othello and after four years, they married. He was previously married to Inna Makarova, mother to his elder daughter. In 1959 he made his directorial debut with Destiny of a Man, based on the Mikhail Sholokhov short story of the same name.
Bondarchuk's western fame lies with his epic production of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which on original release totaled more than seven hours of cinema, took six years to complete and won Bondarchuk, who both directed and acted the role of Pierre Bezukhov, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. The year after his victory, in 1969, he starred as Ivan Martik with Yul Brynner and Orson Welles in the Yugoslav epic Battle of Neretva, directed by Veljko Bulajic.
His first English language film was 1970's Waterloo, produced by Dino De Laurentiis. In Europe the critics called it remarkable for the epic battle scenes and details in capturing the Napoleonic Era. However, it failed at the box office. To prevent running into hurdles with the Soviet government, he joined the Communist Party in 1970. A year later, he was appointed President of the Union of Cinematographers, while he continued his directing career, steering toward political films, directing Boris Godunov before being dismissed from the semi-government post in 1986.
In 1973 he was the President of the Jury at the 8th Moscow International Film Festival.
In 1975 he directed They Fought for Their Country, which was entered into the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. In 1982 came Red Bells, based on John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World (which serves as the film's alternative title). His 1986 film, Boris Godunov, was also screened at Cannes.
Bondarchuk's last feature film, and his second in English was an epic TV version of Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don, starring Rupert Everett. It was filmed in 1992–93 but premiered on Channel One only in November 2006, as there were disputes concerning the Italian studio that was co-producing over unfavourable clauses in his contract, which left the tapes locked in a bank vault, even after his death aged 74 of a heart attack.
In 1995 he was posthumously awarded with an Honorable Diploma for contribution to cinema at the 19th Moscow International Film Festival.
Bondarchuk is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow. His daughter Natalya Bondarchuk is remembered as a star of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, while his son Fyodor Bondarchuk (who starred with him in Boris Godunov) is a popular Russian film actor and director best known for his box-office champion The 9th Company (2005). In June 2007, his ex-wife Inna Makarova unveiled a bronze statue of Sergei Bondarchuk in his native Yeysk.
Honours and awards
Stalin Prize, 1st class (1952) – for the main role in the film Taras Shevchenko and the role of Sergei Tutarinov in Knight of the Golden Star (1950)
USSR State Prize (1984) – for the film Red Bells
Lenin Prize (1960) – for the film The Destiny of Man (1959)
Academy Award (Oscar) for "Best Foreign Language Film" (1968) – for the film War and Peace
Hero of Socialist Labour (1980)
State Prize of the RSFSR Vasiliev brothers (1977) – for the film They Fought for Their Motherland
USSR State Prize Taras Shevchenko (1982) – for his performance as Cardinal Montanelli in the film The Gadfly (1980)
Order of Lenin, twice
Order of October Revolution
Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class
Order of the Red Banner of Labour
People's Artist of the USSR