When he did resurface finally, it was to renew his collaboration with the idiosyncratic Besson - a relationship that had begun at the start of the Eighties when Reno auditioned for a part in a little comedy on which Besson was then working as first assistant director.
"Luc asked me for a photo and I told him, `You must give it back because I have only one,' and he started laughing. Then he said, `Where is your CV?' and I said, `On the back of the photo.' Then he asked me, `Why should you have the part?' When you are unknown, that is always a difficult question, so I said, `I'm here, I'm the best, take me or leave me.' Because he did not know me, it was impossible for him to say I'm not the best, so he took me." And when Besson himself went on to make his own debut feature - the bizarre black-and-white Le Dernier Combat - in 1982, who should he cast as the aviator hero but Jean Reno?
Now best known as the New York hit-man hero of Leon, Reno was born 37 years ago in Spain, to Spanish parents, but ended up doing a spell of French military service at the age of 18 in order to fulfil his dream of studying acting in Paris. "It was boring, boring, boring, but I had to do it to get to drama school. Since then, I've been French - though less French, perhaps, than Gerard Depardieu. He comes from the Loire, which is the heart of France, whereas I choose to live in Arles, which is more cosmopolitan. I speak Italian, German and English. I look at life as a European journey."
It's a journey that has taken in the critically acclaimed Besson films Subway and Nikita, while, following their hugely successful collaboration on Leon, Reno won a pair of high-profile Hollywood parts in French Kiss, with Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan, and Mission: Impossible, with Tom Cruise. But the insights these two movies gave him into the mainstream film industry have made him wary of future projects with American directors. "When you work with Luc Besson, he really looks at you and assesses your emotional level. But Brian de Palma doesn't give a shit about actors. He worries about everything else, how much blood there is in his movie and so on, but he watches the performances on video. That's how little actors mean to him."
During the making of Mission Impossible, Reno's second wife had a baby, whom she named Tom. "I told Tom Cruise about the name and he was happy, because he believes in family. That's good, because in this business you need a solid base. I already have a 19-year-old daughter who is studying to be a nurse and a 17-year-old son who wants to be a composer. When my daughter talks about dating, I tell her about Aids until she says, `Enough, Papa.' Then I tell her to choose a smart gentleman but, of course, she does exactly as she likes."
Without the looks, the youth or the accent of a Tom Cruise, Reno knows that he is cut out more for character roles than for superstardom, but claims he would have his doubts about it even if it were on offer. "Tom earns $10 million per movie but he can't get close to anyone because, after five minutes, he's on a plane to Los Angeles to talk about the next movie. Sometimes he would invite me to an intimate supper, but he was so afraid of being kidnapped that he'd hire the whole restaurant. We'd sit there, just the two of us, with his agent, secretary, bodyguard and lawyer at the next table and the rest of the place empty. If I put my hand on his arm to make a point, they'd all jump up and say, `Watch it, he's touching Tom.' They're afraid you want to take something from him - his shoes, his watch, whatever - so they're always on guard. No amount of money is worth being trapped like that."
In his latest film, Roseanna's Grave - his first English-language comedy (released this week, see review page 6) - Reno plays Marcello, a deranged innkeeper who goes to desperate lengths to keep the inhabitants of his village alive so that his dying wife can take her rightful place in a graveyard that is down to its last few available plots. "The guy is quite stupid but he has a good heart. You laugh at him but, at the end, you learn something about life"n
`Roseanna's Grave' is on general release from tomorrow