PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AFP) — Milos Forman, the Oscar-winning director of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” who has died aged 86, became one of Hollywood’s few successful foreign-born filmmakers after leaving his native Czechoslovakia in the days before the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
Born to a Protestant family in the central Czech town of Caslav on February 18, 1932, the double Oscar winner’s life was indelibly scarred by World War II.
His father, who had been a member of the resistance, died in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. His mother died at Auschwitz.
Forman recalled the last time he saw his father: when aged seven he was pulled out of class to see Forman senior escorted by two leather-coated members of the Gestapo.
After handing over an envelope for his mother, his father told him: “Tell her everything’s fine, and I’ll be back.” He never returned.
Three years later while Forman was in bed with a fever, the Gestapo intruded again, this time at the family home.
“My mother came and looked at me with terror in her eyes. I knew it was the Gestapo. And then she was gone. The house was silent. I was alone,” he recalled.
A certain lightness
It was the first dramatic chapter in a life full of surprises such as the discovery in 1964 — from a woman who had been in Auschwitz with his mother — that his biological father was in fact a Jewish architect living in Ecuador.
Forman was surrounded by his family when he died on Friday after a short illness, his wife was quoted as saying by Czech media.
During the 1960s Forman established himself as a director of the dissident Czech New Wave, which took aim at the communist regime, with three classic comedies: “Black Peter,” “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball.”
Working with non-actors, Forman once revealed his strategy when making a film — the entire crew must have fun.
“That is the only way to open the film to a certain kind of lightness,” he said.
Telling the story of a village ball where everything goes wrong, “The Firemen’s Ball” was produced by Italian magnate Carlo Ponti, who had been charmed by Forman’s talent.
But when he was shown the final version, Ponti refused to pay the promised $80,000 (65,000 euros) — an astronomic sum at that time — slamming the film as a trivial parody.
Facing a lot of trouble and possibly a prison term, Forman finally persuaded French producer Claude Berri to buy the rights to the film. It was banned in Czechoslovakia for mocking the working classes, until the fall of communism in 1989.
In August 1968, just days before the Soviet-led crackdown that followed the Prague Spring uprising, Forman left Czechoslovakia for France, moving to the United States a few months later. He did not return to his homeland until 1983 when he filmed the multi-Oscar-winning Mozart biopic “Amadeus” there.
Forman’s first US film “Taking Off” (1971) was also filmed with non-actors but failed to impress a non-European audience.
“My instincts were too Czech. In any case, I had to change my working style,” Forman said.
His next film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) starring Jack Nicholson, however, was a huge critical and commercial success, and earned Forman his first Oscar for best director.
Forman once said his friends had discouraged him from going anywhere near the script based on Ken Kesey’s novel, which they deemed too American for a fresh immigrant.
“To me it was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968,” he said.
“The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do,” he said about the despotic main female character.
His next movie was “Hair” (1979), a musical pitting hippies against the Vietnam War, followed by “Ragtime” (1981).
In 1983, Forman shot “Amadeus” with a US crew in Communist-controlled Prague, earning him his second best director Oscar. The smash movie won eight Oscars out of 11 nominations.
“A director is little bit of everything, little bit of the writer, little bit of an actor, little bit of an editor, little bit of a costume designer,” Forman once said.
Later works included “Valmont” (1989), “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), which garnered Forman another best director Oscar nomination, “Man on the Moon” (1999) and “Goya’s Ghosts” (2006).
A cigar-puffing cycling enthusiast who always retained a heavy accent, Forman was married to actresses Jana Brejchova and Vera Kresadlova. With the latter he had twins boys, Matej and Petr, before leaving Czechoslovakia.
In 1999, he married screenwriter Martina Zborilova with whom he also had twin sons, Andrew and James. They were named after comedian Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey, who played the part of Kaufman in “Man on the Moon.”