Velimir Bata Zivojinovic, the former Yugoslavia’s best known film star who was also popular in China, has died, Serbian state television reported Monday. He was 82. Zivojinovic died late on Sunday in a Belgrade hospital, according to state TV. He was suffering from several chronic conditions and recently had a leg amputated.
Top Serbian officials expressed condolences over Zivojinovic’s death, describing the famous actor as a “legend.” President Tomislav Nikolic said it was “unthinkable that titans such as Bata, are mortal after all.”
The news of Zivojinovic’s death also resonated in other former Yugoslav republics that were part of the Communist-run multi-ethnic federation, but are now independent states.
Zivojinovic is said to have played the biggest number of film roles in the ex-federation, mostly portraying partisan fighters battling the German Nazi occupation during World War II.
His most famous movie, Walter Defends Sarajevo, made Zivojinovic a star in China. The 1972 film about partisan resistance in the city was one of few foreign films shown in China at the time, offering a glimpse into the outside world.
The iconic Walter was seen by hundreds of millions of people in China, turning Zivojinovic into a nation-wide star. The film’s popularity was such that a beer brand was named after Walter in China and each time Zivojinovic visited the country, fans turned out in large numbers to greet him.
Zivojinovic also appeared in Chinese commercials and on posters and was offered Chinese citizenship.
Years later, when Chinese investors started building a bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, Zivojinovic was greeted with joy as he went to see the Chinese workers at the site.
But at home, Zivojinovic lost some of his iconic status among liberal Serbs and in other ex-Yugoslav republics when he sided with former Serbian nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s conflict.
Zivojinovic ran as Milosevic’s party candidate for the Serbian presidency in 2002 but was eliminated in the first round, winning just 3.3 per cent of the votes.
He is survived by his wife Julijana Zivojinovic, his son Miljko and his daughter, Jelena.