Jean Richard

Click to follow

Jean Richard, actor and circus proprietor: born Bessines, France 18 April 1921; married 1957 Annick Tanguy (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died Senlis, France 12 December 2001.

The distinguished actor Jean Richard appeared in 80 films, but it was for his portrayal of the pipe-smoking detective Maigret in the French television series based on Georges Simenon's books that he became a household name in France.

He had started out as a cartoonist, however, and later developed talents as a cabaret performer and music hall star, as well as becoming the first private zoo owner in France and a theme park operator. He also brought about a spectacular revival of the circus industry in his native country. He also found the time to write three books, Mes bêtes à moi (1969), Envoyez les lions! (1971) and his autobiography, Ma vie sans filet (1984).

Jean Richard was born in 1921 in the charming French village of Bessines. At school he showed an aptitude for design and a talent for cartoon drawing and by the time he was 15 he was contributing material for a local newspaper. He set out to become a theatrical designer but his career took a dramatic turn when he moved into the world of comedy and singing.

Richard's radio and stage fame grew as his voice became familiar to listeners of Radio Luxembourg and his face known on the RTF television station. His first film part, a very small cameo appearance, came in 1946 in Six Heures à Perdre but by 1953 he was established with Deux de l'escradrille and also appeared in Bertrand Coeur de Lion with Robert Dhéry in 1950. A string of film successes followed. Richard, a pipe smoker like Maigret's creator Georges Simenon, took on the television role of the famous detective in the late 1960s; he was a great admirer of Simenon's works, faithfully recreating the character in minute detail.

As his career flourished, Richard indulged more and more his great interest in animals, and his passion for the circus. He would occasionally appear as a clown in the sawdust ring, and in 1956 presented a group of Circus Knie's pigmy African elephants for galas in Geneva, and Knie's big Asiatic elephants for a winter season in Montmartre at the famous Cirque Medrano. He persuaded a French wild animal trainer to form a group of five lions for him to present. Later on he was to show a group of six lionesses and then a cage of tigers.

He later recalled the big travelling funfairs and menageries of his childhood. There were few established zoos, but the travelling menagerie would bring to country people all the wonders of the animal world, the exotic creatures like zebus, elephants, dromedaries and a host of wild animals. In 1955, Richard opened France's first private zoo, buying a property at Ermenonville, some 40km outside Paris, and stocking it with his favourites, the big cats. Later, he developed the theme park at Ermenonville known as La Mer de Sable, now one of France's most popular attractions.

In 1957 and 1958 he toured France as the guest star of the Gruss circus, which was retitled Circus-Zoo Jean Richard for that period, and in the winter season of 1964/65 he made an appearance in Paris with Gruss, their show now titled Cirque Jean Richard, touring France with them in 1968.

Richard formed his own travelling show the following year. The circus in France had begun to stagnate and he was determined to revive its magical charm. He succeeded very quickly in establishing a major touring show and, in an alliance with Bouglions, one of the biggest circus names, staged a massive circus in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris in 1976.

One of France's biggest and most respected circuses, the Circus Pinder, fell on hard times in 1971 and Richard rescued it from bankruptcy. In 1972 he emerged from his winter quarters with two massive circuses under his control, the Cirque Jean Richard and Cirque Pinder-Jean Richard. His enterprises flourished and at times during the 1970s he travelled with a third unit, Nouveau Cirque Jean Richard.

In 1973, Richard suffered a terrible road accident and for weeks his life hung in the balance. He had been desperately tired and worried at that period, and this no doubt contributed to his near-fatal accident. An arsonist had been trying to destroy his Cirque Pinder unit, with 10 attempts in the space of six weeks. It was even more of a shock to Richard when the pyromaniac was revealed to be one of the circus's own staff, a groom attached to the elephant act of Costa Kruso.

Despite his terrible injuries, Richard survived the accident, but his control of his businesses was never again as sharp. In 1983, his circus empire collapsed in bankruptcy. He retired to Ermonenville, continuing to run La Mer du Sable there along with his son Jean-Pierre and daughter Elizabeth. The title of Cirque Pinder-Jean Richard was bought by a French investor, Gilbert Edelstein, and is flourishing again as one of France's leading travelling circuses.

D. Nevil