Dobrivoje Tanasijević - Den Tana:

A Gram Of Luck Or A Kilo Of Brains

He was 17 years old when he left Yugoslavia as a football. At 22, he appeared in his first Hollywood film, in which Robert Michum was the hero.

He was a football manager and the owner of one of the most successful and prestigious restaurants in America – Dan Tana’s. He lives between Los Angeles, London and Belgrade, and is a lifelong member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts of America, which is responsible for selecting films for Oscars. He always remembered the advice from his father that he should never go out for dinner if he doesn’t have enough money for a tip, and his mother’s wise words that he should never be a slave to money. That’s how he has led his life until today.

For 22 years his name was Dobrivoje Tanasijević, but then in 1957 he acted in his first film in Hollywood, The Enemy Below, in which the main characters were played by Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens, and it was then that they came up with the name that would stick with him and by which he would be known around the world – Dan Tana. His career could be divided into three parts – football, film and business. And he left his permanent mark in Los Angeles, the location of the restaurant that bears his name. He established it and ran it for 45 years, only to sell it in 2009. But his name continues to attract visitors, and the fame it has gained is carefully preserved and cultivated by the new owner. However, Dan Tana is not relaxing. From the Jews he adopted the principle that you should never keep all of your eggs in one basket, and so today, at the age of 81, he still lives and works between Los Angeles, London and Belgrade.

He was born in 1935 to the beautiful Lenka Milošević, who was originally from Čibutkovica (a village in the Belgrade municipality of Lazarevac) and was married to Radojko Tanasijević, a wealthy Belgrade café owner:

“She had completed four years of primary school, and she was cleverer than many who had university degrees. She married my father at the urging of her parents and came to live in Belgrade, at 10 Kraljica Natalija Street, which was renamed Narodni Front after the war. When my father went to serve in the army, she was pregnant and she went to stay with her parents in Čibutkovica, and there she gave birth. And that happened on the meadow that belonged to her father, Mladen. They used a sickle to cut the umbilical cord, because there was no time to wait for the midwife. When World War II started, my father went to the countryside to be with his father, and I grew up with my mother. And for the four years of the war I didn’t see him. For everything that I have achieved in my life, I’m most grateful to my mother. My father slapped me only once in his lifetime, and my mother threatened to kill herself if he ever touched me again. And I got beaten by my mother every day, but that didn’t bother me.”

He grew up as Dobrivoje at 10 Kraljica Natalija Street and played football with the kids from the area around the Zeleni Venac green market. He was curious and loved to try everything, and so it was that on one occasion he went with younger girls to a dance school, where he learned the tango and the waltz, and later became their partner when they practiced to music from a gramophone. This skill of knowing how to dance would change his life when he was 18:
“During the war my father was neither with the Chetniks (Royalists) nor the Partisans (Communists), but the new government considered him a representative of the defeated classes, so they confiscated the assets that were actually the property of his father, and condemned him to 12 years of forced labour. My mother launched into action on a rescue mission and found her way to Aleksandar Ranković, who my father had been familiar with before the war. Ranković was the Minister of Internal Affairs of the then Yugoslavia, and she turned up for a month until she finally found him and begged for my father’s release. So my father was allowed to return home after a year, and Ranković succeeded in getting him a job at the café Složna braća, which had been taken away from him. Imagine the irony of being employed as an economist in the café that had once belonged to your father and then you! And so father went out early every morning to the market to procure everything that was needed for the café, where they served breakfast, lunch and dinner. We practically didn’t see him, because he was at the café from morning until evening. And then, in those years, my mother made me vow do whatever I want, just that I should never open a restaurant, because there is no life. I held the promise that I made to her then for a long time.”

Cameron Diaz, Harry Dean Stanton, Former L.A. Laker Jerry West and Angie Dickinson are among the regular guests of Dan Tana’s Restaurant
Cameron Diaz, Harry Dean Stanton, Former L.A. Laker Jerry West and Angie Dickinson are among the regular guests of Dan Tana’s Restaurant

Hollywood was a dream from my boyish imagination, because as a kid in Belgrade we would sit in the park beneath Hotel Moscow and I would talk about how I would one day be an actor in Hollywood.

That kid who played football with a rag-ball in teams of street against street was noticed by someone and introduced to the Red Star coach, Aca Obradović. And so Bata, as Dobrivoje was then nicknamed, becomes a player of the Red Star youth team, which his mother didn’t exactly rejoice about. But Bata was already irrevocably in love with football as his first love. He played right midfield. He was talented and skilled and he was 17 in that summer of 1952, when the youth selection of Belgrade headed off for a tournament in Belgium, where cities competed. It was a huge thrill, his first departure from the country and trip to the West:

“I had no idea of staying in Belgium, but it happened that my life changed there. At the end of the tournament, a dinner was organised for all participants in the tournament. Live music was played and there was dancing… My friends nagged me to dance and I chose a plain looking Belgian girl who danced perfectly. When the two of us started towards the podium, everyone got out of the way and we were the only ones spinning in the rhythm of a fiery tango. We were rewarded with a huge round of applause, and when I return to my players I was greeted by the angry leader of our trip, a man in a long leather coat, which clearly indicated his status as a police officer who was in charge of us, who asked me where I had learned that bourgeois dance. I did not know until then what the word bourgeois meant. I tried to explain to him that I had learned to dance in Belgrade, but he angrily ended the conversation with the words – we’ll talk when we get to Belgrade! That didn’t bode well for me. Several players who intended to flee, or rather not to return to the country, stood up in my defence and entered into a conflict with him. I started to wonder what I should do, because if he wrote in his report upon returning that I had acted badly, at that time that meant that I would not be able to leave the country again. In that moment, three of us went out onto the street, found a police car and asked to be taken to the police station. There we immediately received a translator, an interpreter, and we quickly gained the status of political refugees. So I stayed in Belgium and that’s how learning the tango in Belgrade changed my life.”

From Belgium, Bata would move on to Germany, then to Canada, to Montreal, and in those years he earned money by playing football. In Canada, he learned to play cards and was a talented poker player, and on one occasion, while playing a few games with some of our emigrants, together with a Montenegrin called Luka who had already become his friend, he earned $5,000. Actually, Bata earned it. They had another two Yugoslav friends and, as it was summer and there was no football to be played, they decided to go to America. They piled into a car belonging to one of them and ended up in San Francisco. One of the friends wanted to return to Montreal after a few days, because he had a girl waiting for him, and another left with him, at which point Luka and Bata decided to catch a bus and head to Hollywood:

“Hollywood was a dream from my boyish imagination, because as a kid in Belgrade we would sit in the park beneath Hotel Moscow and I would talk about how I would one day be an actor in Hollywood. And now I was so close that I could see it. Luka and I arrived in Los Angeles and rented a room in the home of some Polish lady. We were there for almost a month. We had enough money and one Friday he suggested that we put it in a bank and keep a little on us. I was left with only ten dollars. It was a Sunday when we went to our church that we met some of our girls. While we waited for the bus, Luka went to buy shoes, and I sat down for a shiner to clean the shoes I was wearing. Luka left the store with new shoes and at that moment some car arrived, picked up Luka and I never saw him again in my life. I was left on the street with nine dollars in my pocket. I changed my plan and decide to go to Hollywood. A return ticket cost 50 cents. I arrived in Hollywood feeling famished, so I sit down in a restaurant, ordered a pizza and thought about where I would go next and what I would do without money. Suddenly, I heard someone in the purest Serbian language say: Bato, what are you doing here? It was the man I had previously seen stretching the pizza dough. Stunned, I ask him how he knew me, to which he explained that he had watched me playing football in Montreal and that his name was Bogdan Šarić. Bogdan invited me to come back when his shift ended. I returned after two hours and that meeting with him changed my life again.”

Dan Tana and actor James Woods
Dan Tana and actor James Woods

He went to English classes and was taken to his first acting class by a lovely young actress called Natalie Wood. He shot a scene in Russian with her, as her mother had been Ukrainian and she spoke Russian perfectly

That day, Bogdan Šarić, who was known to all as Bogi, persuaded Bata not to return to Canada, but rather to stay in Los Angeles and play football there, because he was a great player and he would work wonders in LA. And so Bata started to play for the American-Yugoslav club in San Pedro. Soon they had to solve the problem of Bata’s documents, because he had entered America with Canadian documents. The easiest way to get American documents was to marry an American. They found him a girlfriend, Sally, who was 20 years older than him. She had been a hospital nurse in World War II and Bata saw her for the first time at the wedding. After six months they saw each other again in court for the divorce proceedings. She was a Catholic and he was Orthodox Christian. It was pointed out that they had conflicting attitudes regarding children and everything else, and so the marriage was annulled as if it had never existed.

Bata’s Hollywood life began the moment he started to share an apartment with Bogi above the restaurant Villa Capri, where Bogi worked. That restaurant was visited by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other famous Hollywood personalities of the time, and young Bata sat with them and quickly entered into a life that would soon become his own. He went to English classes and was taken to his first acting class by a lovely young actress called Natalie Wood.

He shot a scene in Russian with her, as her mother had been Ukrainian and she spoke Russian perfectly. Their classes were also attended by rising stars in the acting world, Angie Dickinson and Kim Novak, and Bata increasingly warmed to acting. And so it was that in 1957 he appeared in his first Hollywood film, The Enemy Below, in which the main characters were played by Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens, and for which Bata had eight weeks of filming, despite having only a small role to play. After a brief consultation with the people taking care of such things, he agreed to be Dan, and to retain only Tana from his surname Tanasijević. He called his parents by telephone, during a when telephone conversations were booked at the post office, to tell them that in the future he would be called Dan Tana. His father said to him: Son, let them call you whatever they want, just don’t let them break you! And thus he became Dan Tana, and he would be celebrated with that name. But not on film, rather in business, as the man who, ten years later, would create the most attractive restaurant in Los Angeles – Dan Tana’s:

“Recording films lasted while Hollywood production houses shot movies with themes from World War II. I played communists, fascists, mafia men. I never kissed a girl, but I earned money. I quit playing football, but never quit football. I fell in love with an acting student called Andrea, an American, and married her. Andrea gave birth to our two daughters, Gabriela and Katarina. She was very beautiful and attractive, but with two daughters she could not act. That’s why she started to study painting, because she wanted to be able to paint pictures while she looked after the girls at home. At one time, at the urging of a female Polish friend, I went with her to New York to see strange sensation that the world had gone crazy for in 1960. It was called the Twist and young people went wild for that dance. Chubby Checker promoted the twist at the Peppermint Launch club, and I thought it had no future because it didn’t look like dancing. For me, dancing was when two people dance together, and here two people danced separately from one another. However, I listened to my friend and I was one of three partners who opened a night club in LA where people danced the twist. That was when I made my first big money. It lasted a year and a half, and then I left the business. A friend then convinced me to invest money in the stock market, and I did that with more than half of the money I’d earned at that time, only to lose everything after six months. My wife was pregnant with our second daughter, and I then turned to another job. I formed a football league. I found two partners of Irish origin who I worked with, and they decided to buy the restaurant that was located next to our office. I explained to them that I had sworn to my mother that I would not own a restaurant, but they knew that my mother had died two months earlier and they said that I wouldn’t be breaking my promise, because during her life I really did not have a restaurant. I took the restaurant, which would remain to do this day one of the most successful restaurants in America.”

Dan Tana and his wife Biljana
Dan Tana and his wife Biljana

It is difficult to list all the celebrities who came to Dan Tana’s restaurant, where a place has to be reserved or where guests have to wait at the bar until a table becomes available

It is difficult to list all the celebrities who came to this Italian restaurant, where a place has to be reserved or where guests have to wait at the bar until a table becomes available. Dinner was enjoyed there by famous boxer Joe Di Maggio and writer Arthur Miller, who were linked by the fact that they were both married to tragically deceased movie star Marilyn Monroe, then Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, All Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Gene Hackmann, Gregory Peck , Shirley McLane, Warren Beatty, Sammy Davies Jr., Lee Marvin, Sidney Poitier, Julie Andrews, Fred Astaire, Esther Williams, Karl Malden, Larry King, Norman Mailer, Jessica Lang, John McEnroe, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Mickey Roonie, Dean Martin, John Ford, Harry Belafonte, Doris Day, John Belushi, Francis Ford Copolla, Neil Armstrong, Carl Lewis, Christopher Reeves, Nadia Comaneci, Floyd Patterson, John Malkovich and many others. George Clooney celebrated his Oscar there; on the occasion of the celebration of the success of Serbian film Montevideo, Novak Đoković prepared a presentation there.

Dan Tana considered it best for the restaurant to be frequented by successful people of all occupations – businessmen, athletes, actors, producers, lawyers … His close friend was actor Karl Malden, with whom he spoke in Serbian. James Woods is such a dear friend of his that he says he would give his life for him, just as Woods would do anything for Dan. He never has his picture taken with his famous guests, but since he sold the restaurant, whenever he visits all the famous folk seek to have their picture taken with him.

And what was the secret of this man’s success? Many have offered answers to this question, but he interprets it simply:

“I had a wonderful friend, your media colleague Miroslav Radojčić. He long ago wrote an article about me containing a sentence which I really like, and which relates to me. It reads: It is better to have one gram of luck than a kilo of brains! Perhaps in that sentence Miroslav summed up all that can be said about me. I was followed by luck. When it seemed that I was in a hopeless situation, a solution fell from the sky for me.

I had a wonderful friend, your media colleague Miroslav Radojčić. He long ago wrote an article about me containing a sentence which I really like, and which relates to me. It reads: “It is better to have one gram of luck than a kilo of brains!”

Dan Tana is the only man in the world to have been president of football clubs in America, England and Serbia. He was the first foreigner to own a football club in England. That was back in 1975. At that time he paid a million dollars for London club Brentford, while today Russians, Japanese and Chinese investors pay billions for English clubs. When he sold the club, he turned to Serbia and Serbian football and did a lot for it. He was president of Red Star FC. He tried to save the club, but did not receive support from the government or the City:

“I was very young when I agitated among our people in LA to vote for Democrat John F. Kennedy to become President of the United States. I met all the brothers, the sister and her husband. After the killings of the Kennedy brothers my interest in high politics ended. I knew Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, who hate for all the damage he caused to us Serbs. I hung out with John Kissinger, who I rate as a politician of international stature. Via Borislav Pekić, I supported the opposition in Serbia during the ‘90s and financed the publishing of the newspaper Demokratija. I don’t understand the resistance that Serbia still has regarding the people in the diaspora. Those of us who live and work outside Serbia are financially stronger than the whole of Serbia. But Serbia opens the door to foreigners to come, while it does not do the same for its own people. I’m not a big believer, but I gave 100,000 dollars to restore the Čibutkovica Church where I was baptised.

America has done a lot for me, England has done a lot for me, but I’m in love with Serbia, which has done nothing for me. There is some curse in us to hate anyone who is successful.”

Dan Tana’s older daughter, Gabi, is a very successful producer, while his younger daughter, Katarina, is also successful as a designer and decorator. He is very proud father and he considers his greatest success the fact that they are both wonderful citizens of the world. He is a lifelong member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts of America, which decides on Oscar nominated films. After his divorce from Andrea, to whom he was married for 20 years, he has remained in good friendly relations with her. For the last ten years he has been married to Biljana.
From his father he always remembered the advice that he should never go out for dinner if he doesn’t have enough money for a tip, and from his mother that he should never be a slave to money. And thus he has governed himself until today.