To most audiences of John Sturges’s classic war movie The Great Escape, Michael Paryla was an unnamed actor whose appearance on screen lasted just 57 seconds. To Andrew Steinmetz, Paryla was the lost cousin he never met, a relative he could only know from secondhand reports and brief flickering film images. In this touching biography, Steinmetz interviews Paryla’s relatives, friends, and colleagues and explores old records to reconstruct the events that took the Vienna-born actor from a childhood spent as a displaced person to a seven-year sojourn in Canada, and finally to an all-too-brief acting career in Germany, where he died from a lethal mix of alcohol and sleeping pills. Paryla was never a household name and may not seem worthy of the attention, but the founding editor of Esplanade Books succeeds in making the case that anyone’s biography can provide insight about the context in which he or she existed. Paryla’s too-short life was defined by Europe during World War II and after, and through his life, those periods are themselves defined.
- August 26, 2013