Mischa Auer (17 November 1905 – 5 March 1967) was a Russian-born American actor who moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s. He first appeared in film in 1928. Auer had a long career playing in many of the era’s best known films, and he received an Academy Award nomination in 1936.
He later moved into television and acted in films again in France and Italy well into the 1960s.
Auer was born Mikhail Semyonovich Unskovsky (Михаил Семёнович Унсковский) in St. Petersburg, Russia. His name is usually seen as Mischa Ounskowsky, Mischa being the German transliteration of Misha (the diminutive form of Mikhail), and Ounskowsky being the French transliteration of his surname.
Auer’s maternal grandparents were Hungarian-born Jewish violinist Leopold Auer and his wife, Nadine Pelikan. Mischa renamed himself after his grandfather.
He began stage work in the 1920s in Bertha Kalich’s Yiddish Theater, then moved to Hollywood, where he first appeared in 1928 in Something Always Happens.
He appeared in several small and mostly uncredited roles into the 1930s, appearing in such films as Rasputin and the Empress, Viva Villa!, The Yellow Ticket, the George Gershwin musical Delicious, the Paramount Pictures all-star revue Paramount on Parade and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.
In 1936, Auer was cast as Alice Brady’s protégé in the comedy My Man Godfrey, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
From then on, he was regularly cast in zany comedy roles. Auer is at his zenith in such roles as the ballet instructor, Kolenkov, in the Best Picture-winning You Can’t Take It with You (wherein he instructs Ann Miller with the line, “Ah, my little Pavlova!”) and the prince-turned-fashion designer in Walter Wanger’s Vogues of 1938.
Auer can also be seen cavorting in such films as: Arsène Lupin (1932), One Hundred Men and a Girl, Hold That Ghost, Destry Rides Again, Spring Parade, Hellzapoppin’, Cracked Nuts, Lady in the Dark, and Up in Mabel’s Room (1944). He was also one of the large cast of And Then There Were None, as well as the vehicles for Lily Pons.
In the 1950s, Auer appeared on several episodic television series, like Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Studio One, Broadway Television Theatre and The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre as well as in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin. In the 1960s, he made several films in France and Italy, including The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.
Auer married four times and had three children. Mischa’s first wife was Norma Tillman (1931 – 1941) whom he married in 1931. They had a son Anthony and a daughter Zoia.
They divorced in 1941. In 1941 he got married the second time to Joyce Hunter (4 December 1941 – 1950) and lived with her for 9 years. His third wife was Susanne Kalish (5 May 1950 – 1957), and they had one daughter. His fourth wife was Elise Souls Lee (1965 – 5 March 1967).
Auer donated some of his earnings to build a Russian Orthodox church in Hollywood, California.
He died of cardiovascular disease in Rome in 1967 and was interred at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Gloversville, New York.