Veteran actor Leonard Pietraszak dies at 86

Leonard Pietraszak, Polish theatre, television, and film actor. November 6, 1936 - February 1, 2023. Photo: PAP/Tytus Żmijewski

His roles ranged from a handsome swashbuckling cavalry officer that made female viewers swoon to an iconic villain the audience loved to hate. Leonard Pietraszak, a theatre, television, and film actor whose career spanned five decades, died on Wednesday, February 1, at the age of 86.

Leonard Pietraszak was born in Bydgoszcz on November 6, 1936. His father was a veteran of the 1918-1919 Greater Poland Uprising, which secured the province for the reborn Polish state, and later served in the elite Border Protection Corps, tasked with supervising the Polish-Soviet border where tensions simmered throughout the interwar period.

After the war, the Pietraszak family came to be neighbours with Edward Rinke, a pre-war bantamweight boxer and former concentration camp prisoner. Young Leonard wanted to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother, who had moved to the United States to pursue a boxing career. Rinke trained the young man, but his first fight in the ring ended with a defeat. It can be supposed he must have returned home quite bruised since his father sternly forbade him to continue with the sport.

After graduating from high school, he began working for a press-distribution company, while studying at the famous National Film (and theatre) School in Łódź. He made his debut on stage in 1959, one year before graduating, beginning his theatrical career in Poznań, before moving to Warsaw.

Even before his first theatrical performance in 1959, Pietraszak had appeared on screen, albeit mostly in uncredited bit parts. But there was a pattern to notice in the way he was cast. The handsome young actor must have inherited some of his father’s military bearing, as throughout his career he would frequently play men in uniform.

His big break came in 1973 when he got the role of Colonel Krzysztof Dowgird in “Black Clouds”, a swashbuckling television series set in the latter half of the 17th century, a turbulent time for Poland. Based on a historical figure, Colonel Dowgird is a Polish-Prussian nobleman opposing the Hohenzollern ruler of Ducal Prussia, who wants to introduce absolutist rule in his domain and shed the feudal submission to liberty-loving Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to which Dowgird himself remains staunchly loyal.

Sporting a lumbersexual beard before it was cool, Pietraszak’s breakout role gained him nationwide recognition. And all that thanks to a fluke of luck with a tragic lining. Stanisław Jasiukiewicz, a more experienced and better-known actor who was originally cast as Dowgird, was stricken with pancreatic cancer and died before the show that made Pietraszak famous, aired in late 1973.

Dedicated to the theatre, Pietraszak nonetheless had an impressive record acting in television and film, with some 130 credited and uncredited parts on screen, albeit mostly as supporting characters.

The part that cemented his recognition to this day was that of a villain. And it takes a truly great actor to play a villain that the audience simply adores… to hate.

In 1981 he starred in “Vabank”, a cult-status heist comedy classic, the directorial debut of prolific Polish comedy film director Juliusz Machulski. Here he played Kramer, a ruthless and conniving bank owner, who cons his customers out of their life savings. But when he resorts to murder to remove a possibly troublesome victim of his scheme, he is put on a collision course with his victim’s friend, Kwinto (played by the director’s father, Jan Machulski). Murdering Kwinto’s friend was worse than a crime: it was a mistake. If you got rich and famous through originally being a bank robber yourself (oh, the juicy irony), then the last thing you want to do is to murder a friend of the same legendary safecracker you ratted out to the cops days before the man is released from prison. Because then he might get the idea to rob you blind and at the same time frame you for the deed.

Long story short, “Vabank” is a must-see.

Pietraszak continued his career on stage until 2008 and finally retired from acting in 2012. For his contribution to art, he received numerous awards, including the prestigious “Gloria Artis” medal, as well as the Polonia Restituta (Restoration of Poland) order. His last great contribution to culture came in 2021 when he donated his collection of Young Poland art paintings to a museum in his native city of Bydgoszcz.

Leonard Pietraszak died on February 1, 2023, in Warsaw. He is survived by his son, German philologist and art historian Mikołaj Pietraszak-Dmowski, and his second wife, actress Wanda Majerówna.