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Belmondo died Monday in his Paris home, his lawyer Michel Godest told the AFP.
In his role in Breathless, as a professional car thief, amoral killer and lover of an American expat played by Hollywood star Jean Seberg, Belmondo was hailed as the French Humphrey Bogart. Many saw him as a cross between Bogie and James Dean.
With his boxer’s nose, shaggy haircut and lopsided smile, he was not your typical matinee idol; he played characters that were often reckless tough guys yet also nonchalantly French.
During the course of six decades and more than 80 films, Belmondo starred in art house movies by Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Sautet and Jean-Pierre Melville in addition to scores of action flicks in which he did his own stunts.
In 1989, he was awarded a best actor Cesar Award for his performance in the Claude Lelouch dramedy Itineraire d’un enfant gate (Itinerary of a Spoiled Child). But he refused to accept the trophy because it was designed by a famous artist (Cesar Baldaccini) who had never acknowledged the work of Belmondo’s father, the sculptor Paul Belmondo.
The actor suffered a severe stroke in 2001 that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him unable to speak for six months. But he went on to appear in two more movies, including playing the lead in A Man and His Dog (2009), a remake of the Vittorio De Sica neorealist classic Umberto D.
Belmondo received an honorary Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, an honorary Golden Lion at the 2016 Venice Film Festival and an honorary Cesar in 2017, when he appeared onstage surrounded by a throng of French stars.
In a 2016 interview with film magazine Premiere, Belmondo, then 85, reflected on his career: “I’ve had the luck to be among those actors who’ve delved into all sorts of genres, from brainy New Wave films to laugh-out-loud comedies. I really have no regrets.”
Jean-Paul Belmondo was born on April, 9, 1933, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent neighborhood just outside of Paris. His father’s works can be found in the Tuileries Garden near the Louvre and on the facade of the Paris Opera.
The young Belmondo was an avid cyclist and soccer goalie who would co-found the Paris Saint-Germain soccer squad in 1970. He also was a boxer who fought professionally in his teens, with nine fights, four wins and one draw.
When he was 16, Belmondo decided to become an actor and was eventually admitted to the prestigious Paris Conservatoire of Drama, where he would befriend fellow thespians Jean Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Marielle and Bruno Cremer. He graduated in 1956 but was denied entry to the Comedie-Francaise after the Conservatoire jury refused to award him with honors, for which Belmondo apparently responded by giving them the finger.
After minor roles in such films as Marcel Carne’s Youthful Sinners (1958) and Marc Allegret’s Un drole de dimanche (1958), Belmondo crossed paths with the burgeoning French New Wave, starring in Claude Chabrol’s third feature, the seldom-seen crime drama A Double Tour (1959), and the Godard short film Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1960).
But it was with Godard’s Breathless that the actor skyrocketed to fame in France and abroad. Starring alongside Seberg, Belmondo played a wily gangster named Michel Poiccard who models himself on Bogart, just as Godard fashioned his film after Hollywood B-movies that he deconstructed into a bold new work of modernity.
Chain-smoking and speaking directly to the camera, Belmondo turned in a lively, funny and physical performance that would become one of the most notable of his career while making Breathless one of history’s most influential films.
The actor starred in another 1960 release that also would become a local hit in years to come: Sautet’s debut Classe tous risques, where he played opposite Lino Ventura.
To the public, Belmondo represented a new wave of actors with regular, flawed features. “The revolution of Breathless was that the young lead wasn’t pretty to look at,” he said years later. He would set a precedent for everyday-looking stars like De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman, who would mark Hollywood films of the next two decades.
During the rest of the ’60s, the actor headlined more than 30 movies by a variety of renowned filmmakers: Peter Brook’s Seven Days … Seven Nights (1960); De Sica’s Two Women (1960); Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest (1961), Le Doulos (1962) and Magnet of Doom (1963); Henri Verneuil’s A Monkey in Winter (1962) and Greed in the Sun (1964); Philippe de Broca’s That Man From Rio (1964); Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? (1965) and Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969).
The actor also would star in two of Godard’s most memorable films: A Woman Is a Woman (1961) and Pierrot le Fou (1965). His performance in the latter — as a family man who falls for a dangerous old flame (Anna Karina) and soon loses his mind — is among his greatest.
In the 1970s, Belmondo switched to more commercial fare, headlining a number of French action flicks in which he famously performed his own stunts and injured himself several times. His most daring work was in Henri Verneuil’s thriller The Night Caller (1975), where he was suspended from a helicopter and stood atop a moving metro.
By the early ’80s, Belmondo had become France’s biggest box-office star, with films like Georges Lautner’s The Professional (1981) and Gerard Oury’s Ace of Aces (1982) attracting millions of moviegoers. A serious injury on the set of Alexandre Arcady’s 1985 police comedy Hold-Up helped put an end to Belmondo’s reign as an action hero.
“I don’t want to be the flying grandpa of French cinema,” he said at the time.
In the years that followed, he returned to the stage, playing Cyrano de Bergerac in 1989 and headlining two renditions of classic works by Georges Feydeau.
After Itineraire d’un enfant gate, he worked again with Lelouch in 1995 on an adaption of the Victor Hugo classic Les Miserables, where he played a character inspired by the novel’s hero, Jean Valjean.
In 2018, it was announced that Belmondo would reteam with Lelouch once more for a sequel to Itineraire d’un enfant gate, with the actor once again starring alongside Richard Anconina.
Belmondo was married to dancer Elodie Constantin, with whom he had three children, Florence, Paul and the late Patricia, from 1952 until their 1966 divorce, which came after he began dating Swiss actress Ursula Andress on the set of Up to His Ears (1965). (She was separated from director John Derek at the time.) Belmondo then was romantically involved with Italian actress Laura Antonelli from 1972-80.
In 1989, he began dating ballet and television danseuse Natty Tardivel. They were married from 2002-08 and had a daughter, Stella.
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