Anton Yelchin, the Russian-Jewish actor perhaps best known for his role as Chekov in the recent Star Trek movies, died early Sunday morning in a bizarre automotive accident in Los Angeles. He was 27.
Yelchin was born in Leningrad in the former Soviet Union (now, St. Petersburg) to Jewish parents, both of whom were prominent figure skaters—stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet for 15 years—who were barred from competing in the 1972 Munich Olympics because of their faith. By late 1989, when Yelchin was just six months old, his family realized that living in Russia was no longer tenable for Jews, according to a profile in The Jewish Journal:
And so, in 1989, his parents sold all their worldly possessions in order to relocate Los Angeles with refugee status, with only $5,000 in their pockets and speaking hardly a word of English. Along with [Yelchin’s father’s] mother, who had recently suffered a stroke, and [Yelchin’s mother’s] father, the family settled into a small apartment in West Hollywood.
Yelchin began taking acting classes when he was nine years old; two years later he appeared in his first film, Man is Mostly Water (2000). Greater success followed after his turn as a captive in Alpha Dog (2006), a well-received performance. He also studied acting at USC.
Yelchin, who often wore a hamsa and a Star of David around his neck, was introduced to his widest audience in 2009 when he starred as Pavel Chekov in the first film of the new Star Trek series. Since then, he was been featured in a string of well-received indie films like The Green Room (2015), Experimenter (2015), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Speaking to The Jewish Journal about a morally compromised, pessimistic Jewish character he once played, he said: “While I don’t think it’s right to classify people under a category like Jewishness… my idea of being a Jew—at least a Russian Jew—isn’t in the traditions, which my family just didn’t know… Rather, it’s in the alignment of the history of the Jews in Russia, which is the history of being entirely oppressed. Inevitably, it’s a mindset.”
On social media, Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, called his Star Trek co-star a dear friend, comrade, and one of the most open and intellectually curious people that he knew.
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.