Armin Mueller-Stahl in ''Avalon'' | EW.com

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Armin Mueller-Stahl in ''Avalon''

Armin Mueller-Stahl in ''Avalon'' -- The actor plays a Russian Jew who immigrated to America in 1914

Armin Mueller-Stahl in ”Avalon”

Armin Mueller-Stahl read the look on Vi Levinson’s face as an urgent command. Director Barry Levinson had brought his mother to the set of Avalon to meet the actor who would, in effect, be playing her father, Sam Krichinsky, a Russian Jew who traveled to America in 1914 with little more than a suitcase. Mrs. Levinson showed Mueller-Stahl a picture of her father. But more important than the picture was the look in her eyes that accompanied it. ”Be careful!” it seemed to command. ”Play my father as good as he was!”

The actor didn’t shy away from the challenge. With blazing blue eyes and the tanned skin of an outdoorsman, Mueller-Stahl, 59, speaks warmly of his affinity for Sam. ”Barry told me he was a man who was always soliloquizing: ‘Where are my glasses? Maybe on the bed, no? The bathroom?’ Always loud- speaking and smoking cigars. So I knew precisely his grandfather. And I took many things from my grandfather, too, who came over in 1914 from Russia to Germany.”

Though Mueller-Stahl has been a major star in Europe — in East Germany until he was blacklisted for criticizing the government, and then in West Germany — Avalon is only his second American movie. In the Costa-Gavras film Music Box, he played a Hungarian emigrant accused of Nazi war crimes and defended by his daughter, played by Jessica Lange. ”An awful man,” the actor says, though the role won him critical acclaim. In the part of Sam Krichinsky, Mueller- Stahl found an inspiring contrast: ”Sam Krichinsky is my heart piece. Of all the films I’ve ever made, this is my favorite.”