Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn both tell a tale of helping a waitress escape
Forty-five years after the Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, two minor mysteries remain. What ever became of the young Czech waitress that two Hollywood actors smuggled across the border into Austria, and what happened to a defiant production assistant? The actors have each told the stories in their memoirs and both admit to wondering over the years about the friends they made right before the end of Prague Spring.
In August 1968, actors Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara were among the cast of war film The Bridge at Remagen, about the final days of World War II and efforts to capture one of the last crossings on the Rhine River. Filming was taking place at Davle, a small town with an old-fashioned bridge just south of Prague. The bridge is still there, instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the film.
Actor Gazzara recounts the invasion in his 2004 memoir In the Moment: My Life as an Actor. Vaughn has made two accounts. Vaughn has a lengthy account of Prague Spring in his 2008 autobiography A Fortunate Life. He also participated in a BBC radio play from 2007 called Solo Behind the Iron Curtain, where Vaughn plays himself and the main plot involves saving a young vibrant woman who is a composite character of the waitress and the production assistant.
Gazzara was at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2004 and confirmed that he was in Prague when the Soviet tanks came and that he and the rest of the cast and crew had to make a hasty exit.
His memoir describes the invasion, as seen from the International Hotel in Prague, in more detail:
“I started hearing strange rumblings, then jet planes zooming overhead. I looked out the window and saw tanks – lots of them – moving into position below us. … I called the front desk to ask what was going on. The kindly telephone operator told me. ‘It’s the Russians. They’ve come like the Germans in 1939. They’ve come to kill our freedom.’ She was crying. ‘Poor Czechoslovakia,” she said.
Vaughn was at a different hotel – Parkhotel near Veletržní palác – but saw a similar sight. “Standing atop the tanks was a collection of very nervous and confused-looking young men – Soviet soldiers, who, I learned later, had been brought in from places like Mongolia and told that, when they reached Prague, they would be joyfully greeted as liberators. (As Dick Cheney discovered in Iraq thirty-five years later, such predictions rarely come to pass.),” he wrote.
Filming on The Bridge at Remagen stopped, and all of the cast was consolidated at the International Hotel – described architecturally as being built by a “Stalinist stooge” – and basically put under house arrest. Given the current situation with Soviet tanks on the ground, there was no way the authorities could allow a column of U.S. tanks and artillery – props for the movie – to remain parked along the Vltava.
But what to do with the cast and crew was a problem. They were stuck in the hotel for about a week, waiting for all the papers to be arranged to allow them to leave.
Vaughn in his memoir becomes concerned about a Czech-born production assistant with the unusual name of Pepsi Watson – her father became a Czech citizen and named her after the one thing from the West he missed the most. In the days after the invasion she handed out anti-Soviet newspapers, even though people had been shot for this.
Both actors recount that at the International Hotel she went up to the balcony and hurled a Russian flag like a javelin at the tanks below. Gazzara says it followed an argument. Vaughn ties it to Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček’s speech after he returned from Moscow, clearly having been tortured. It was the speech where Dubček mentions that the situation in Czechoslovakia will be “normalized.”
Vaughn said he considered running after Pepsi before she threw the flag, but he didn’t know what she intended to do.
The tanks then turned their turrets toward the hotel and aimed at the balcony. “‘Holy Christ,’ I said to Robert Vaughn, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ You never saw people run so fast. Most of us headed to the back of the hotel and prayed,” Gazzara said.
Vaughn said that the cast was made to sit on the hotel stairs facing the direction of the guns. What happened to Pepsi for her act of defiance remains unclear. “As for Pepsi Watson, I never found out what happened to her – my personal heroine from the short-lived Prague Spring,” Vaughn wrote.
Soon after this incident, the convoy to take the cast and crew to Austria was arranged.
In the radio show – actually written by Tracy Spottiswoode but fictionalized based on Vaughn’s accounts – it is Pepsi who is smuggled out by Vaughn, eventually to reach relatives in America. The memoirs agree, though, that it was a waitress from the Intercontinental.
Gazzara gives a concise account. “We had decided to help a young waitress get out of Czechoslovakia, our plan being that she would ride in the car with Robert Vaughn and me, headed for neutral Austria. She would carry no luggage, only identification papers. Her name was Apolina. … We simply liked her style. She was pretty and smart. I went to the dining room to see if she still intended to go. I felt like I was in a spy movie starring Humphrey Bogart. I was even wearing a trench coat, although it wasn’t raining,” Gazzara wrote. He found her in the dining room and she nodded that she would go.
The convoy of cars gets to the checkpoint at Gmünd, with Apolina crouched on the floor and hidden under other people’s legs. “We were in luck: the Russians hadn’t yet taken over that checkpoint. The Czechoslovakian guards took a cursory look and waved us through,” Gazzara stated.
In Vienna, Apolina left the car, saying she had friends she could stay with. After kissing Gazzara on the cheek and waving goodbye, she vanished. “I’ve often wondered what happened to that Czech girl,” he said.
Vaughn gives a different take and doesn’t even place himself in the same car. He hints that Apolina isn’t her real name, but he uses it to be consistent with Gazzara’s version. Vaughn claims that Gazzara and his then-wife Janice Rule were in the car with the Apolina. Gazzara, however, makes no mention of his wife in the Prague chapter.
Vaughn minimizes his role. “Like everyone else in Prague, Apolina wanted to leave once the Russians came, and the Gazzaras were ready to help,” Vaughn wrote.
The guards don’t just wave them through in his take. Vaughn’s and Gazzara’s cars both get stopped. “The oldest looking border guard told us all to get out of the two cars with passports at the ready. Within seconds the guards found Apolina – the one person among us whose papers were not in order. They dragged her toward a little guardhouse. We were held at bay by very frightened but menacing young soldiers. …With Apolina in custody the rest of us were taken across the border to a kind of cafe, a border way station of the kind found in a noir film about Cold War espionage. There we would wait for her,” Vaughn wrote.
Three hours passed, and the actors discussed whether they should go back for her, wait some more or leave. “Suddenly, as we argued, a shadowy figure emerged from the darkness at the checkpoint, yelling and waving her arms. It was Apolina. Somehow this young, terribly frightened girl had distracted her captors and escaped. Soon we were weeping with joy and excitement,” Vaughn added.
And he drops another big contradiction to Gazzara’s account. “Eventually, Ben managed to get her back to the States,” he wrote.
But which account is correct is impossible to say. Gazzara died in 2012, leaving his memoir as his final word on the subject. Vaughn is 80 years old, and too much a gentleman to divulge a woman’s secrets in public. Assuming the waitress was around 20 when the incident occurred, she would be about 65 years old now, wherever she is.
Both actors say the cast did not stay in touch after production, despite the Cold War adventure they all shared. “We haven’t seen each other for decades,” Gazzara wrote.
Vaughn was more poetic. “If anyone would have said at the time, ‘You four [main cast members] won’t see each other again once Election Day [in November 1968] has come and gone,’ we would have scoffed at the prediction. But that proved to be the case.”
The film was completed with studio shots done in Hamburg and at a replica bridge built near Rome. It was released June 25, 1969.