Feodor Fedorovich Chaliapin Jr. was born October 6, 1905, in Moscow, Russia. He was the youngest of six children. His father was the world-famous Russian Opera basso Feodor Chaliapin Sr.. His mother, Iola Tornagi, was a prima-ballerina who quit the stage after her marriage and became a caring mother of six children. Young Feodor grew up in a trilingual family environment. He received an excellent private education in Moscow, where he enjoyed the company of his father’s friends, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Konstantin Korovin. After the Russian revolution of 1917, he and his father fled from Russia to Paris, France.
Chaliapin Jr. got out from under his father’s shadow after moving from Paris to Hollywood. There he began his film career, playing cameo roles in silent films. He created a niche for himself as an impressive character actor with excellent skills. His role as Kashkin, dying in the arms of Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), was one of the finest moments in his early career. He played a variety of Russian characters in films made during and after the Second World War. Among the most memorable of his early works was his role as Fomich in Prisoner of the Volga (1959), directed by Viktor Tourjansky, also a Russian emigrant.
After World War 2 Chaliapin moved to Rome, Italy. There he continued his film career as a character actor, from the 1950s-1970s. He played a broad array of very different characters, ranging from a comic gem as Sen. Torsello in the political satire Nonostante le apparenze… e purchè la nazione non lo sappia… all’onorevole piacciono le donne (1972), to a sinister Prof. Arnold in the horror film Inferno (1980). He returned to Hollywood and made a comeback in his later years. He really made his mark by playing the blind, murderous monk “Jorge of Burgos” in The Name of the Rose (1986). He is probably best known for his role as the loony dog-walking grandfather in Moonstruck (1987), living in a world of his own and greeting the Moon with his funny cries “La Luna! La Luna!” He also enjoyed a fine part as Leonides Cox, ‘Robert De Niro”s father in Stanley & Iris (1990). His last notable role was as Prof. Bartnev in The Inner Circle (1991), based on a true story about people suffering in the Soviet Russia under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
In 1960, during “The Thaw” initiated by Nikita Khrushchev, Chaliapin Jr. saved his mother from the communist captivity and reunited with her in Rome, Italy. At that time, Iola Tornagi was 87 and had been granted permission to leave the Soviet Union. She left behind a magnificent art collection and a museum-quality home, built in Moscow by her famous husband. She could only bring her son an album of pictures of his childhood and youth in pre-communist Russia.
24 years later, Chaliapin Jr. took part in the returning of his famous father’s remains from Paris to Moscow in 1984, which was also a result of reforms known as perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Chaliapin was allowed to visit Moscow in 1984 for the burial ceremony of his father, Chialiapin Sr., at the Novodevichy Monastery Cemetery. There he briefly rejoiced with his three sisters and other relatives around his father’s tomb.
Through his entire life Feodor Feodorovich Chaliapin Jr. was devoted to his mother, Iola Tornagi. She died in 1964, and was laid to rest in the cemetery of Rome. He died of natural causes on September 17, 1992, at his home in Rome, Italy, and was laid to rest next to his mother in the cemetery of Rome.