Guillaume Depardieu: Troubled actor who emerged from the shadow of his famous father

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The Independent Online

In 1996, Guillaume Depardieu won the César – the French equivalent of the Oscars – as best newcomer for his performance as Fred in the black comedy Les Apprentis (The Apprentices), directed by Pierre Salvadori. He subsequently acted in more than 30 feature and television films, emerging out of the shadows of his famous father, Gérard Depardieu, to garner excellent notices for a succession of challenging roles.

The mercurial Guillaume didn't see eye to eye with Depardieu père, and often accused the star of wasting his talent with appearances in lucrative blockbusters, while his son picked more difficult parts. Guillaume once went as far as joking on French television that he had thought of changing his surname to "fils de pute" – "son of a bitch".

Yet both father and son were enfants terribles of French cinema, even if the volatile Guillaume went much further down the road to self-destruction than Gérard ever did. Despite their fraught relationship, often played out in the pages of magazines like Paris Match, the Depardieus acted in several films together, most notably Aime Ton Père (A Loving Father), the father-and-son drama directed by Jacob Berger in 2002, as well as the TV films Les Rois Maudits (2005) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1998).

Guillaume Depardieu was born in 1971 to Gérard Depardieu and his wife, the actress Elisabeth Guignot. Guillaume made his film début as a three year old in Claude Goretta's Pas Si Méchant Que Ca (The Wonderful Crook) in 1974, and was an extra in two of papa Depardieu's biggest successes, the Provence drama Jean de Florette (1986, directed by Claude Berri) and the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac (1990, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau). But his relationship with his often-absent father was troubled, and, with a longstanding problem of drug addiction, the volatile Guillaume took rebellion and self-loathing to new heights.

In his autobiography, Tout Donner ("Giving Everything", 2004), based on a series of interviews with Marc-Olivier Fogiel, he admitted to having had sex with a man when he was 15 in order to get his train fare home, and also claimed to have been a gigolo. Several offences – at various times, he was convicted of theft, dealing heroin, riding a scooter while under the influence, and threatening an admirer with a gun – led to stints in jail, most recently this summer.

In 1990, Guillaume appeared in "Taggers", an episode of Le Lyonnais television series directed by Cyril Collard. The plot revolved around graffiti artists in les banlieues, and Guillaume drew on his own troubled teenage years and the resentment he felt towards his father to create a memorable character called Velvet.

His film career began in earnest in 1991, with Alain Corneau's Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World), in which he played the young Marin Marais, while his father portrayed the musician in his later years. In 1993, Pierre Salvadori cast Guillaume in Cible Emouvante (Wild Target) as a contract killer, and cast him again in 1995, the comedy Les Apprentis. But shortly thereafter Depardieu was involved in a freakish motorbike accident – his bike hit a suitcase which had come off the roof of a passing car – which interrupted his career at a crucial point.

He soldiered on with roles in Jean-Pierre Mocky's Alliance Cherche Doigt ("Wedding ring looking for finger", 1997), Peau D'Ange (Once Upon An Angel, 2002), directed by Vincent Perez, Jacques Rivette's Ne Touchez Pas La Hache (Don't Touch The Axe, 2007), and particularly excelled as Pierre, the central character in Leos Carax's controversial Pola X in 1999.

Most recently he played a homeless man in Versailles, directed by Pierre Schoeller, which premiered at Cannes this spring, as did Bertrand Bonello's De La Guerre (On War), in which he also had a part. Both are still playing in French cinemas. Two further films, both by female directors, Sylvie Verheyde's Stella and Christine Dory's Les Inséparables, in which Depardieu also appears, are due to open in November.

Depardieu was of much leaner physique than his father; his anguished looks and intense performances led to comparisons with James Dean and Heath Ledger. His pain and suffering, often self-inflicted, informed his acting, yet his work carried within it the seeds of redemption. He was considering a musical career and had started work on an album. Josée Dayan, who directed three films starring Guillaume, including Un Château en Suède, a TV film also featuring Jeanne Moreau and due to air later this year, called him "the most gifted actor his generation."

Sadly, Depardieu's long history of drug addiction, as well as the tortuous, lingering aftermath of his motorbike accident in 1995 – including 17 operations, during which he caught an infection in hospital – and the eventual amputation of his right leg in 2003, took their toll on his health. (After the amputation, he launched a charity, the Fondation Guillaume Depardieu, to help victims of hospital infections.) He fell victim to pneumonia after contracting a virus while shooting the psychological thriller L'Enfance D'Icare with the director Alexander Iordachescu in Romania.

Pierre Perrone

Guillaume Jean Maxime Antoine Depardieu, actor: born Paris 7 April 1971; married Elise Ventre (one daughter; marriage dissolved 2006); died Paris 13 October 2008.

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