Peter Simonischek, an eminent Austrian theater actor who found international fame as the shambolic prankster and adoring father in Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated 2016 German film “Toni Erdmann,” died on May 29 at his home in Vienna. He was 76.
The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Brigitte Karner, said.
Mr. Simonischek was a member of the Burgtheater, the venerable Viennese institution otherwise known as the Burg, one of the oldest and largest ensemble theaters in the world.
“He was one of the last great stars of Austria,” said Simon Stone, the Australian director who is based in Vienna and cast Mr. Simonischek in his 2021 play, “Komplizen,” at the Burg. Mr. Simonischek, he said, was a beloved public figure, recognized by taxi drivers and passers-by in the streets of Vienna, where he was more of a celebrity than most film stars.
He was certainly easy to spot: a handsome, shaggy-haired bear of a man who used his physical heft to marvelous effect.
His size “lent his performances a hulking grandeur,” said A.J. Goldmann, who covers German theater for The New York Times, “that could be tragic or give them a Falstaffian absurdity.”
In the comedy “Toni Erdmann,” the story of a workaholic management consultant named Ines (played with brittle humor by Sandra Hüller), Mr. Simonischek is Winifried, Ines’s mortifying father, a retired music teacher who sets out to liberate Ines from her soul-squashing profession by camouflaging himself as Toni Erdmann, a loutish, lumbering corporate consultant to her boss, and upending all she holds dear.
The film, written and directed by Ms. Ade, enthralled critics at Cannes and the New York Film Festival and was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best foreign language film (losing to “The Salesman,” from Iran). A.O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, called it “a study in the radical power of embarrassment” and described Mr. Simonischek’s character as “a slapstick superhero.”
“Sometimes he’s a clown,” Mr. Stone said of Mr. Simonischek. “And sometimes he’s an authority figure or a debonair leading man. He was willing to completely humiliate himself. He used his beauty and his imposing physicality as a kind of canvas on which he could paint any kind of disgusting or extraordinary quality that any of his characters needed.”
In Mr. Stone’s play “Komplizen,” which he said translates not quite accurately as “Complicit,” Mr. Simonischek played an industrialist who is facing a reckoning as the world turns against him and his ilk.
It is Mr. Stone’s process to write his scripts in rehearsal, to encourage the actors to come to the material fresh and make room for improvisation. It’s a grueling process, he said, and Mr. Simonischek excelled at it, cheering on the younger cast members who struggled with the practice. Also, the production called for a rotating stage, making rehearsals even more grueling.
“Once you’ve got Peter in your corner, you can achieve anything,” Mr. Stone said. “His brilliance was infectious; he shared it with the cast on a daily basis. It’s a quality he has had from the beginning of his career — to make other actors brilliant while never becoming less brilliant himself.”
Peter Simonischek was born on Aug. 6, 1946, in Graz, Austria. His mother was a homemaker and his father was a dentist who had hoped his son would study medicine, as Mr. Simonischek told an interviewer last year. But after seeing a performance of “Hamlet” when he was a teenager, he said, “I was lost.”
He attended the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, and found work as an actor in Switzerland and Germany. In 1979, he joined the Berlin Schaubühne, an innovative ensemble theater, where he became a star. He joined the Bur in 2000.
In addition to “Toni Erdmann,” for which he received the European Film Award for best actor, his most recent film roles include “The Interpreter,” a 2018 Slovak film, and “Measure of Men,” a German film about the country’s colonial atrocities in Africa; it came out in February.
Besides his wife, who is also an actor, Mr. Simonischek is survived by three sons, Max, Kaspar and Benedikt, and two grandchildren. His first marriage, to Charlotte Schwab, ended in divorce.
Just before his death, Mr. Simonischek had been playing the stage role of the patriarch of a Pakistani American family in a production of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and the What” at the Renaissance Theater in Berlin, following an enormously popular run at the Burg, where it opened in 2018. (The Renaissance stopped the show when Mr. Simonischek fell ill a few weeks ago.)
The play tells the story of a devout and charismatic Muslim man whose daughter has written a novel about the Prophet Muhammad, scandalizing their traditional community and upending their relationship.
Mr. Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013 and is the author of the critically acclaimed 2020 novel, “Homeland Elegies,” said that of all his plays this production is the longest running and most popular. And in contrast to its American run in 2014, it was staged with an all-white cast, only because that is the cultural and racial makeup of Burg’s ensemble. It’s a scenario that in years past might have given him pause, as he told Mr. Goldmann of The Times in 2018. But Mr. Simonischek and his castmates had won him over.
“What was remarkable was this weird alchemy,” Mr. Akhtar said in a phone interview, “because Simonischek at that point was the patriarch of Austrian theater, a father figure to the Austrian public, and he was playing this conservative Muslim father.
“On opening night the notoriously stoic Viennese audience was in tears,” he went on. “Maybe not as much as me” — Mr. Akhtar said he was sobbing onstage at the curtain call — “but not far from it. It was one of the peak moments of my career.”
At Mr. Simonischek’s death, Mr. Akhtar was in the middle of writing a play for him. Mr. Simonischek, he said, was “soulful, precise and enthralling — an actor whose heart and generosity were as wide as his talent.”