Jean Lefebvre

'Soft-hearted stooge' of French comedy
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The Independent Online

The comedia Jean Lefebvre usually managed to appear more English than French. He might almost have been called a French Geordie, though he was in every sense a typical Frenchman - he came from the far north-east corner of France, from Valenciennes. The proximity of England just across the Channel effaced all Latin traces. He was a chips and mussels man with plenty of salt and vinegar, no passionate connoisseur of Mediterranean cuisine.

Jean Lefebvre, actor: born Valenciennes, France 3 October 1919; four times married (two sons, two daughters); died Marrakesh, Morocco 8 July 2004.

The comedia Jean Lefebvre usually managed to appear more English than French. He might almost have been called a French Geordie, though he was in every sense a typical Frenchman - he came from the far north-east corner of France, from Valenciennes. The proximity of England just across the Channel effaced all Latin traces. He was a chips and mussels man with plenty of salt and vinegar, no passionate connoisseur of Mediterranean cuisine.

He made me think of a character in Dickens or Thackeray, for he had a distinct Victorian look - the Artful Dodger in person. He could have played Sancho Panza to a Don Quixote of Louis de Funès - the comic genius with whom he appeared in several farcical farragos; or a boozing mate - Bardolph or Pistol - to a Falstaff of the gargantuan clown and truly immense actor Michel Galabru, another of his real-life and on-screen cronies in Jean Girault's preposterous series of "Gendarme" farces (the delight of French working-class Saturday-night audiences, and still one of the popular mainstays of interminable television weekends and summer vacation diversions). He could also have played the Gravedigger in Hamlet, emerging from the tomb with a coal-miner's black-faced grin.

Lefebvre often played the shrewd innocent who gets into hot water - Buster Keaton without the scary acrobatics, moon-faced Harry Langdon in his usual sentimental pickles, Stan Laurel whose long-jawed, tight-lipped resignation hid abysses of despair. They called Jean Lefebvre " le tendre pitre" - the soft-hearted stooge. Audiences loved his randy adolescent's sidelong off-screen look of slightly panic-stricken bliss in the clutches of a statuesque but indulgently motherly hoofer. They loved his big, black, mournful spaniel's eyes and nervous, slightly rat-like smile, his modest, squeaky voice.

In fact, he had an operatic voice: he had won second prize in Paris at the Opéra Comique, where he studied for a while. But his subsequent drama teacher, René Simon, took him down a few pegs when he informed Lefebvre that his stage acting voice was too big for his body. The effect was unintentionally ludicrous, so he was advised to stick to light comedy.

In his schooldays, he was such a skinny child, he was mercilessly bullied by big boys until he learned to play the fool, displacing their scorn for his pitiful physique and provoking their affectionate laughter at his clownish wit. That was how he discovered he had the makings of an actor.

At first he studied acting at the Conservatoire de Valenciennes, then in Lille and Paris, where among his fellow students in René Simon's classes his close friends were future stars - Robert Hussein and Pierre Mondy among them. He made his début at the Cabaret Amiral, then played a small part in Robert Dhery's first great success, La Plume de ma tante ("The Pen of My Aunt"), in the early Fifties.

He was to appear in more than a hundred movies and in numerous plays, some of them total flops. In French a flop is called a navet (turnip) which prompted him to remark that in his long career he had planted a whole field of turnips. But he appeared in some memorable comedy films.

In the early Sixties, the nouvelle vague was in full swing, but there were still directors who stuck to the more traditional forms of cinematic art. Among them was Georges Lautner, whose most personal work was in the "Monocle" series of comedies, as well as in polars or detective and mystery stories. But Lefebvre's most memorable film was Les Tontons flingueurs ( Crooks in Clover, 1963) with an all-star cast of "pistol-toting nuncles" including Francis Blanche, Lino Ventura, Robert Dalban, Bernard Blier and Jean Lefebvre - all now dead. In 2002, Lefebvre gave an interview in which he said:

The older I get, the closer I am to God. It's a strange thing . . . I am the last of the " Tonton" lot.

He also made memorable appearances in the comic series known as " Les Gendarmes" - Le Gendarme à New York ( The Gendarme in New York, 1965), Le Gendarme se marie ( The Gendarme gets Married, 1968), and Le Gendarme en balade ( The Gendarme Takes Off, 1970). But the best loved of all that haywire series remains the first, Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez ( The Gendarme of St Tropez, 1964).

Lefebvre was seen to good advantage in a number of interesting supporting roles: in Jean Stelli's Une Fille sur la route ("A Girl on the Road", 1952) with Georges Guétary, a drunken solider in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques ( The Fiends, 1955) and René in Roger Vadim's Et Dieu . . . créa la femme ( And Woman . . . was Created, 1956) with Brigitte Bardot. It is amusing now to find him playing opposite Diana Dors in Robert Dhery's Allez France! ("Up the French!", 1964), a highly Francophile treatment of an England-France rugby match at Twickenham.

Another popular comic series was the " Septième" (Seventh), including Le Septième commandement ( The Seventh Commandment, 1956), surprisingly starring the great Edwige Feuillère, and La Septième Compagnie au clair de lune ( The Seventh Company Outdoors, 1977), directed respectively by Raymond Bernard and Robert Lamoureux. This sort of Dad's Army satire on army life was extremely popular.

Lefebvre was a great smoker, a great drinker and a great lover of parrots. And of women too: he married four times. His was a nature like comedy's own various forms and qualities. As Horace Walpole said: "The world is a comedy to those that think: a tragedy to those that feel." This saying encapsulates perfectly the life of Jean Lefebvre.

James Kirkup



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