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Bruno Cremer: Actor who excelled in military, gangster and detective roles

The French actor Bruno Crémer had what people across the Channel call une gueule – a memorable, rough-hewn, angular face – and he excelled in a succession of military, gangster and detective roles.

Most famously, he played Maigret on French television for 15 years, and managed a different take on the Parisian police inspector created by Georges Simenon.

"I tried to erase the old-fashioned, pipe-and-slippers, paternalistic aspect of the character," he said. "I thought he lacked a sense of humour so I brought a bit of mystery, a certain distance and irony to the part. My only regret is failing to convince the producers to have him forego the pipe for a cigar." The chain-smoking actor portrayed Maigret for 54 episodes between 1991 and 2005. However, while French television still buys and screens dubbed versions of whodunnit series like Midsomer Murders, UK-based channels gave up on Maigret after making their own versions starring Rupert Davies in the 1960s and Michael Gambon in the early '90s.

English-speaking audiences are therefore more likely to remember Crémer for his appearance alongside Roy Scheider in Sorcerer, William Friedkin's ill-fated 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's gripping action drama The Wages of Fear. Notable for its use of an electronic soundtrack by the German band Tangerine Dream and its $20m budget, Sorcerer proved a costly flop for the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist and effectively ended Crémer's international career, even if he also appeared in Money, the thriller directed by Steven Hilliard Stern in 1991.

Crémer was the youngest of three children born to a Flemish music-loving mother and a businessman from Lille who had taken up Belgian nationality so he could join up at the start of the First World War. The scar on his upper lip, which toughened up his looks, was the result of a bicycle accident in 1936, when he was seven.

He got the acting bug early. "I was 12," he recalled in his memoir Un Certain Jeune Homme. "Acting was the exit door that saved my life. Otherwise, I don't know what I would have done."

Crémer failed his baccalauréat, but studied drama at the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1950s alongside Annie Girardot, one of his co-stars in The Bonnot Gang, the 1968 Philippe Fourastié film about the notorious anarchist bank robber, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo also joined him among the all-star cast of René Clément's libération epic Is Paris Burning? in 1966 and Philippe Labro's thriller L'Alpagueur (Hunter Will Get You) a decade later. Another Conservatoire contemporary, Jean Rochefort, appeared with him in André Farwagi's crime film The Time to Die in 1970.

Crémer first made his name in the theatre, as Saint Just in Jean Anouilh's Poor Bitos in 1956 and Thomas Becket in the world premiere of Anouilh's Becket ou L'Honneur de Dieu in 1959, and occasionally returned to the stage over the next five decades. In 1965, Pierre Schoendoerffer cast him in The 317th Platoon, the powerful film adaptation of his novel about the end of France's disastrous colonial war in Indochina. As Sergeant Willsdorf, the Second World War veteran with more survival skills than his nominal superior, Second Lieutenant Torres – played by Jacques Perrin – Crémer was mesmerising, though he became typecast as a result.

"I was the only actor willing to go along with the idea of filming in the Cambodian jungle. That doesn't necessarily make me a dog of war," he reflected. "I loved the character but it seemed to narrow the range of opportunities that came my way."

He nevertheless appeared as an army captain who is court-martialled, stripped of his rank and turns heister in Schoendoerffer's Objective 500 Million in 1966, and a colonel in Là-Haut, Un Roi Au-Dessus Des Nuages ("Above the Clouds") by the same director, in 2003. "An actor should only show himself behind a mask. Otherwise, he loses some of his mystery," said Crémer, who admired Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum, and had something of the latter's presence and simmering sense of menace.

He worked with many of France's leading directors, including Bertrand Blier, Yves Boisset and Claude Sautet. In 1967, he was a Resistance leader with a dilemma in Un Homme De Trop ("Shock Troops") by Costa-Gavras, who also directed him in the Vichy-era drama Special Section in 1974.

Crémer demonstrated his considerable range as the prison priest in Luchino Visconti's 1967 adaptation of the Albert Camus novel The Stranger, starring Marcello Mastroianni. In 1989, he was impressive as the philosophy teacher who should know better, but falls in love with a 16-year-old played by Vanessa Paradis in Jean-Claude Brisseau's Noce Blanche, another variation on the Lolita obsession which lurks within the French psyche. In 2000, he was especially affecting in François Ozon's Under the Sand as the "phantom" husband whose death Charlotte Rampling refuses to acknowledge.

Maigret had been portrayed by 15 different actors, including such monstres sacrés as Harry Baur, Pierre Renoir and Jean Gabin, as well as the more avuncular Jean Richard, by the time Crémer was cast. He became synonymous with the part, and earned plaudits from Georges Simenon's son Pierre. The throat cancer Crémer was diagnosed with became so pronounced that Vincent Grass overdubbed his voice in the last Maigret episode.

A private man who hated interviews, Crémer lived in hotels for 15 years between his marriages. Claude Lelouch, who directed him in The Good and the Bad in 1976, said, "Bruno Crémer was the perfect actor. He always struck the right tone, he was at the top. On a film set, he was a team-player, marvellous with his own performance but also fantastic with other people around him. He was very generous."

Bruno Crémer, actor: born Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne, France 6 October 1929; twice married (one son with first wife, two daughters with second wife); died Paris 7 August 2010.