I wanted to build my own family tree and leave a trace, so I took my father’s name as my last name. It’s wonderful news that my oldest son Filip is getting married soon, and that his wife said she was going to take the last name Mensur. What I’ve wanted is coming to pass. I have Filip and Pavle Mensur and, God willing, I will have grandsons and granddaughters too.
Sunflower seeds and Ivica Osim
I remember my hometown of Sarajevo by my decision to be a part of the herd rolling aimlessly through the streets. The first memories that I have are about sunflower seeds. They used to sell seeds and peanuts at the corner of my street. The whole gang would gather up around that stall, and we didn’t go any further. Of course, in order to justify our standing there, we would buy sunflower seeds and look at girls passing by or getting out of school.
We lived close to the Železničar F.C. stadium. In addition to the seeds stall, I spent a portion of my time there. We would watch the footballers training and admired them – people like Ivica Osim, Josip Katalinski, and many others. I still support Železničar. Ahead of big matches, the footballers would get out of the bus, and us kids would run to meet them and carry a footballer’s bag. That’s how we would get into the stadium. Once, I managed to get through to Ivica Osim. He gave me his bag, and I got into the game with him. This was the talk of the town for months, and I was the local hotshot, because I carried Ivica’s bag in.
Football and volleyball
And then came sports. I gave football a shot, but many guys were more talented than me. I was good at playing ball, but there were as many as three professional footballers at my school. Much later, when I became an actor, we would often play ball at the 25 May Sports Centre. Goran Marković, Dušan Kovačević, Emir Kusturica, and Branko Baletić would meet up there. I wasn’t the best of the lot there. Kusturica is a good footballer, but Dušan Kovačević is better. However, the late Šaban Šaulić was better than all of them together. I played ball with him. He didn’t come over to play with us artists; instead, we would go to Dedinje and hit the outdoor pitch. Šaban was an amazing footballer.
I did find my sport – it was volleyball. I was on Bosnia’s junior state team too. They even invited me to join the junior national team of the former Yugoslavia. I had to put an abrupt stop to my career in sports because I messed up in a different area – schooling. I got expelled in year three of high school, so I had to transfer to Niš, where my father used to live. Niš calls me one of their own too.
The first acting steps
When I moved from Sarajevo to Niš, I started to go to the theatre, and realized there were things beyond sports. I had never been to the theatre before. The first time I went there was when I was 16. I lived in the house of a professional actress, and her colleagues would often come to visit. I went to the theatre out of curiosity, to try and understand what they were talking about, and caught a glimpse of the beauty of that profession. Privately, I started wishing to become an actor, so I went straight to the Faculty of Drama Arts and Minja Dedić.
However, I had already been accepted into the drama school in Zagreb, because our family friends, who taught there, had seen me and said I was good and that I should take the entrance exam. My late father told me that, since I hadn’t performed anywhere, or even recited a poem in front of my class – because I hadn’t learnt one in the first place – that I should go to Belgrade and see how things were there. The entrance exam in Belgrade was some twenty days earlier. I was shortlisted. The entrance exam at Zagreb was beginning at that point, but I decided to stay in Belgrade and not go to the university where I had practically been accepted. Luckily, I was accepted at Belgrade and that turned out not to be a stupid move. I could have been a Zagreb actor too.
We were considered a cohort that held their own. Let me start from those who have passed away – Danilo Lazović and Milan Erak. Then there were Zinaid Memišević, who lives in Toronto now, Rade Marjanović, Nada Blam, Gordana Marić ... We were a strong cohort. We rented flats together too. Perhaps what held us together was the fact that not everyone was from Belgrade.
My whole Belgrade odyssey started in the student halls in Novi Beograd. A guy from Niš, who was a student at the Fine Arts Academy, took me in. I slept on the floor in the first couple of months as an illegal occupant. I don’t know if students can still get a room in this way … Afterwards, we lived in rundown apartments. We had a ‘one-two-three-go!’ approach to food. We’d buy a whole chicken, a loaf of bread, and mayonnaise. Because we didn’t want to choose who gets to have the drumstick, the light meat, or the rump, we would tear off whatever we could get our hands on – one, two, three, go! I don’t think I have ever touched chicken with bread and mayonnaise since, or considered having it. When we were broke, the waiters from the Kolarac restaurant would give us food. The Academy was one floor above. We were at Kolarac all the time. They probably pitied us. We most certainly weren’t their best guests, because we had everything on the tab. I have made less money than went into my fare at Kolarac.
Days in the military
I went to serve in the military straight from a tavern. The Stupica club was our main haunt. I know that Lokica was at the farewell party, and that she was on a table at one point. I was 27. I took a cab around 5 o’clock and went to Zemun. Of course that was a trick. My residence was in Niš at the time, and I didn’t change it, so naturally I got sent to Belgrade. Puling some strings. I can talk about it openly myself. I was in air defence. My duty was to protect the Belgrade Palace building and to take down any airplane that showed up.
The first paychecks
We earned our first paycheck by screaming on the radio. It wasn’t a lot of money. I spent my first bigger paycheck by taking more than half of my university cohort to Rovinj for a summer holiday. I know I had made one or two TV dramas, and when the payment came in, I was able to play the little sheikh of Belgrade. We had a great time. They used to sell old stone houses in Rovinj at the time, as well as some stables. My colleagues were trying to persuade me to buy something. At age 20 or so, the thought of having a place I could call my own never occurred to me – I thought the world was my oyster. I thought that these paychecks would just keep coming for the rest of my life. I didn’t buy anything, and I regret it, but it’s too late now.
The roles and the career
They can love me or hate me, but no one can dispute the fact that I have been around a long time. Actors must reduce their careers to professional longevity, and to confirm it they need two or three good film, TV, or theatre roles. The rest is an employment record. You cannot be at the top of your game in every role, about to reach the level of art. I have demonstrated my talent in no more than two or three films. I couldn’t guarantee that anything else is of any value. I never tell tall tales of my roles and directions.
I’m not entirely happy with my first role in The Day That Shook the World. I think that was a complete failure on my part. I starred in it, but that was what plucked me out of anonymity. Two films followed - The Dog Who Loved Trains and Beach Guard in Winter – by Goran Paskaljević, which I’m very proud of. Then there was The Scent of Quince and King's Endgame, which was one of the first attempts to make a thriller in Yugoslavia. I played alongside the late Ena Begović, as well as Vladica Milosavljević. Everyone said the casting was all wrong, with Ena playing the role of my wife and Vladica that of my lover.
The role of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre, where I was based, was a staple of my career. Even my younger son Pavle got his name after it. People would wait to be introduced to me after each show. The roles that mark nearly half a century that I spent at the YDT include Simeon the Foundling, directed by Dejan Mijač, and In Search of Marcel Proust and Migrations by Vida Ognjenović. There were many more parts, but they belong in the employment record.
A director in the actor
During my entire career, I tried to give advice to other directors. However, in the late 1980s I started to direct as well. I wanted to resolve some of the issues that I had at the theatre by directing. Before the great directions, I made the Irfan Mensur Cabaret Show, at the insistence of Milan Gutović. He already had his cabaret show. I did the monodrama Buffoon and was awarded the Gold Medal in Zemun, at the Festival of Monodrama. It was then that I offered The Blue Bird to the theatre. Jovan Ćirilov, who was the theatre manager at the time, commented on it, ‘My god, what a bizarre suggestion.’ However, he accepted this bizarre suggestion, and that’s how I started off as a director. Now I’m preparing to direct Ana Karenina in Niš. All my theatre productions are straightforward in the technical sense, as well as justified. Actors like working with me, because as an actor, I don’t direct; rather, I make my own theatre with them.
One of my most recent directions was The Vienna Boys. I made that theatre show so that Predrag Ejdus, Slobodan Ninković, and myself could live slightly better lives. We performed it more than a hundred times. After Predrag’s death, Dragan Petrović Pele stepped in. It was the last show that Ejdus played in in his life. We had a guest performance in Kikinda. You never knew with Predrag. He wouldn’t admit that he was ill. I was sitting at this very café when I realized something was up with him. I decided to give him a call and crack a joke, as I felt he wasn’t well. He said he was in hospital, and then said something that I never expected Predrag Ejdus to say: ‘It’s over, bud.’ He died two days later.
My heart and the illness
I was working on a show in Zaječar and directing Sanja Ilić’s spectacle Constantinus Magnus in Niš in parallel. I was snowed under, and at one point I felt a fatigue. Both my shoulders were going numb. Something gave there. The manager of the Zaječar theatre sent me to the Gamzigrad Spa Centre, for a spell in a bath of water with healing properties. Before going into the bath, a cardiologist gave me a check-up. She took a look, and then said: ‘You’re in excellent shape.’ I was on my way out, but she called me back to do a stress test. They switched on the treadmill. She put it in first gear, then the second, the third – and started to holler. She said: ‘You urgently need to go to a hospital.’ What do you mean – hospital, the opening night is in seven days. She gave me a nitroglycerine pump spray, and released me at my own request. So, I didn’t go into the bath, but to the show instead, driving 350 kilometres to Belgrade. Halfway through the show, I said to my best man Voja Brajović, who was the medic on duty there, that he should fix up a nice medical exam for me in Belgrade, and showed him the nitroglycerine. He wanted to stop the show, cos he thought I could kick the bucket right there. I finished the show and went back to Zaječar. On the next day, after the rehearsal, the manager took me to Negotin. When the doctor had a look, she said: ‘You need to go under the knife urgently. I mean – urgently!’ I thought I was Man of Steel. I called Voja up. The entire team of doctors met me at half past one at night. I went from the rehearsal straight into surgery . I smoked three cigarettes in the car. I thought to myself that they were the last ones I would have. And they were. I quit after the surgery.
Afterwards I realized I was in fact destructible, and that I had messed up. I was leaving three people behind – Filip, Pavle, and Aleksa [author’s note: Srna’s son from the first marriage]. Seven years ago, they needed me. Especially Pavle and Aleksa. I share Aleksa with his father. I raised him from age two. His father is the dad, and I am the pops.
I almost lost my life in the 1990s. It was 1992, and I had a gun in my mouth. Literally! That could have been the end for me. At a time when everything was grey, some primitive people wanted everyone to have a last name ending in -ić. They wanted to have a drink with Žarko Laušević that evening, and they were chasing me away because my name is Irfan Mensur. It all happened at the Stupica club and in the vicinity. I left Serbia, but then decided to go back. I checked with the leader of the grey Serbia if it was OK to come back or not. He told me to come back. I am the only person who has returned the Swedish passport. I got their citizenship in an express procedure. My stepfather saw that I had a watermark in my passport that they did not have in theirs. What I got was a political refugee passport. I didn’t feel that way. I just wanted everything to calm down and for the chaff to be removed from the wheat. So I returned the passport. Afterwards, I went to London, Copenhagen, Sweden, and back to Serbia on a Yugoslavian passport.
I would do the same thing again. For seven days, as I was getting ready to leave, I had a security detail. I didn’t know if the attack was organized or not. I couldn’t take a step anywhere without being followed. I soon forgot those horrid times. I was surrounded by people who didn’t think that way.
When I came back, my telephone was tapped a couple of times. Threats kept coming in, because I was rubbing someone the wrong way. A police chief gifted me with a gun and a licence to carry it. I returned that too. Those days were tough. It was individuals who caused incidents.
You know nothing about my marriages. Both Ljiljana and Srna are extraordinary women who I still love, because they gave birth to my sons. I have a duty to protect them and care for them. I didn’t get out of any of my marriages with harsh words. I didn’t have traumatic divorces. I remain friends with Ljiljana and Srna, and they can rely on me in life for anything, except male-female relationships.
I first fell in love in Sarajevo. I was in year three of grammar school. I was coming up with what to talk about one whole day. We were supposed to take a walk down Wilson’s Promenade. Of course, it all ended in trivialities. Her name is not important. She is now an important figure in the world of music.
I also remember my first stirrings of manhood. I was 11. We were taking a dinky train to Boračko Lake for the summer holiday. There were countless tunnels. We were sitting in compartments. I remember that a girl and myself would hold hands in each new tunnel. The excitement I felt stayed with me as something incredible that never happened again. My first love was my right hand and her left hand.
A successor in acting
Pavle isn’t a better actor than me, and he will never be better, because he has not graduated from a drama school. When he completes his university degree, I will publicly acknowledge that. I teach at the academy, and I know those kids can learn a lot during schooling. He completed his first year and has been on a break for two years already. He decided to go into business, but I told him that wouldn’t last forever. He has new roles and projects lined up. However, an actor must prepare for a hiatus, which is inevitable in our line of work. You need a degree for such a hiatus. Being an actor is a never-ending fight.
Pavle is continuing something that I started 50 years ago, and I hope that he will be lucky to have the man upstairs watch over him. There are countless talented people, which don’t get to be picked up by someone above, and they disappear quickly. That someone was good and picked Pavle up ahead of schedule.
The greatest fear
It happened when Srna and me built a house in Zemun – this greatest fear of mine. We had cascades and a large living area. Pavle was taking his first steps in a baby walker. I was minding my son. I don’t know how, but at one point I saw him disappear from sight. He started to fall from a height of eight meters. I remember his fall, and afterwards they found me a kilometre away, my head between my hands, buried in my knees. I ran away from my house. I was terrified. Pavle didn’t have a single scratch. That is how I see my sons – as gods.
I’m not afraid of death. I died seven years ago. On my way to the surgery, when they did a triple bypass on me, I knew that I was leaving behind my first and last name, what I had accomplished, my three sons and the women that would remember me. I’m not afraid of that last breath. I wasn’t conscious of the first breaths I took when I was born either. I’m only afraid of the torture of getting to the end. I will leave behind a trace that I can be proud of.
Kurir/ Ljubomir Radanov, foto: Ana Paunković