Michael Sarrazin: Actor best known for playing opposite Jane Fonda in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

A tall, Canadian actor with distinctively wide, sunken eyes, Michael Sarrazin had a long career as a leading man to such actresses as Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand without ever attaining superstar status. His off-beat personality and predilection for quirky movies that failed to attract large audiences limited his profile, though he won praise for such portrayals as the intense drifter coerced into a doomed relationship in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), and his outstanding multi-layered portrayal of the monster in an epic television movie Frankenstein: The True Story (1973).

He was born Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin in Quebec City, Canada in 1940. Shortly after his birth his family moved to Montreal, where he had a wayward youth, attending eight schools before eventually dropping out. After training at the Actors Studio in New York, he found work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

He began his acting career appearing in historical documentary films made by the National Film Board of Canada, and in 1975 one of them caught the eye of a talent scout. He was signed to a contract by Universal, who cast him in the television series The Virginian, and in a TV movie, The Doomsday Flight (1966). He made his big-screen debut in an inconsequential western, Gunfight in Abilene (1967), starring Bobby Darin, but made a strong impression in his second movie, The Flim-Flam Man (1967), also known as One Born Every Minute. In this engaging comedy he was hailed as a bright new star for his portrayal of a reluctant apprentice to a travelling confidence trickster (George C Scott).

A weak Civil War western, Journey to Shiloh (1968), preceded a superficial portrait of youthful "beach bums", The Sweet Ride (1968), in which he played a surfer who is shocked into ending his aimless lifestyle when the girl he loves is murdered. He won a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, and began an affair with his co-star, the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, with whom he went on to live for 14 years.

Sarrazin's major breakthrough, and the role for which he will be best remembered, came when he played leading man to Jane Fonda in Sidney Pollack's uncompromisingly harrowing portrait of the marathon dance craze in the Depression era, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), giving a fine, reticent performance as an aimless youth literally taken off the beach to be her dancing partner by the cynical, self-destructive Gloria (Fonda), who urges him to kill her to put her out of her misery. At the subsequent trial, when asked why he committed the crime, he responds, "They shoot horses, don't they?" In 1994 Sarrazin commented, "You could have paid me a dollar a week to work on that. I still get really intense when I watch it."

He was then top-billed in Eye of the Cat (1969), in which he plots to murder his rich aunt (Eleanor Parker), who keeps a house full of felines. In A Man Called Gannon (1969) he had another apprentice role, as a young farm boy taught the skills of a gunman by an older drifter (Tony Franciosa) who becomes his opponent in a range war, then he and Julie Christie played potential lovers, who fantasise about but never meet each other, in In Search of Gregory (1970).

Made in Geneva, the ambitious tale tried to be fashionably oblique (its co-writer Tonino Guerra had contributed to L'Avventura and Blow-Up), but never came to life. (Sarrazin is alleged to have turned down the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy in order to do the film, though some sources indicate that he lost the role because Universal wanted too much money to loan him out.)

Robert Mulligan's The Pursuit of Happiness (1971) gave him a good role as an independent young man who is sent to prison more for his anti-establishment attitude than his offence, and it was followed by a striking portrayal of Paul Newman's misunderstood and ostracised hippie brother in the saga of a logging family's efforts to stay independent, Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), which was directed by Newman.

Sarrazin co-starred with Bisset in Believe in Me (1971), in which she was a career girl in Greenwich Village who becomes a drug addict, with Sarrazin as a medical student who shares a needle with her. Proud of his roots, Sarrazin would frequently return to work in Canada, and in 1972 he starred there in The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), in which he was a space scientist disfigured in a laboratory explosion who is suspected of being a spy. One of his better films was Bruce Geller's likeable Harry in Your Pocket (1973), a genial account of a team of pickpockets in which Sarrazin was once again the naïve apprentice, this time to seasoned crooks James Coburn and Walter Pidgeon.

The same year he won fulsome praise for a haunting depiction of the monster in Jack Smight's ambitious TV movie, Frankenstein: The True Story, a superior version of the much-filmed tale, with a high-toned cast including James Mason, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and a screenplay by Christopher Isherwood, with Sarrazin far from the stitched-together norm for the role but instead a dashing, lively adventurer who wins sympathy as he slowly degenerates physically.

He was then cast as the cab-driver husband of a zany Barbra Streisand in the limp attempt at screwball comedy, For Pete's Sake (1974), and though billed second to the star, he had a thankless role. In 1975 he hosted two episodes of the US television programme, Saturday Night Live, displaying the sense of humour that his friends would acknowledge but that he was rarely able to demonstrate on screen.

Typically, he played a professor who is horrified to discover that he harbours the ghost of a murdered man inside himself in The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), after which it was apparent that his career was in decline. He went to Italy to star in The Life and Times of Scaramouche (1976), and followed it with such negligible projects as The Gumball Rally (1976), the story of a coast-to-coast race by stock cars, Caravans (1978), a ponderous desert epic, the Canadian-made, complex thriller about memory loss, Double Negative (1980), and The Seduction (1982), a sleazy thriller starring Morgan Fairchild as a stalked newscaster.

He continued to work frequently in television, appearing in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ("The Quickening"), and taking guest roles in such series as Murder, She Wrote. His later films included two in which he played the character of Harry Warner to Michael Caine's former secret agent Harry Palmer in the spy stories Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in St Petersburg (1996). His last project was a television movie, The Christmas Choir (2008). In 2000 he moved from the West Coast back to Montreal, to be near his two daughters.

Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin, actor: born Quebec, Canada 22 May 1940; two daughters; died Montreal 17 April 2011.

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