Michel Constantin

Sportsman turned actor who became a favourite of French cinema-goers
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The Independent Online

Constantin Hokloff (Michel Constantin), actor: born Boulogne- Billancourt, France 13 July 1924; married; died Draguignan, France 29 August 2003.

Playing the heavy does not come easily to the average diminutive Frenchman. In the Sixties, film producers and directors of thrillers began using former sportsmen to beef up their casts accordingly. The volley-ball and basketball player Michel Constantin followed in the footsteps of Lino Ventura, his former wrestling opponent, and was soon appearing with him in films such as Robert Enrico's Les Grandes Gueules (Jailbird's Vacation, 1965) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Breath, 1966).

Constantin went on to appear in more than 80 films, portraying a succession of hoodlums and cops and becoming a great favourite of French cinema-goers with his cauliflower ears, bushy eyebrows, weather-beaten face, huge hands and removal-man stature. He rose to unlikely co-star status with Jean-Paul Belmondo and the Italian sex symbol Claudia Cardinale in La Scoumoune (Bad Luck, 1972), a revenge thriller set in Marseilles.

Constantin also developed a talent for comedy, acting opposite Jean Yanne in Georges Lautner's Laisse Aller C'est Une Valse (Take It Easy, It's a Waltz, 1971) and Yanne's own satire on religion Deux Heures Moins Le Quart Avant Jésus-Christ (Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, 1982).

Born Constantin Hokloff in 1924 to a Russian father and a Polish mother who had settled in the Paris suburbs, he got a job on the Renault production line when he was 14. At the end of the Second World War, he set up his own company, which he claimed became "the biggest French manufacturer of knitting needles". The young Hokloff was also a keen sportsman who played basketball and excelled at volley-ball, turning out for Racing de Paris and the French national team which eventually he captained.

Indeed, volley-ball proved the making of him in more ways than one. During an international tournament, he met his future wife Maurine, who played for the Algerian team. Equally fortuitously, the acclaimed director Jacques Becker was watching his son play for Racing alongside Hokloff and decided to cast the rugged sportsman as Jo in the prison escape drama Le Trou (The Hole, 1960). Taking up the stage name Michel Constantin, he joined a cast of unknowns in what was to be Becker's last film.

But, even after the plaudits he received for his gritty performance in Le Trou, Constantin was reluctant to give up his job as a journalist on L'Equipe, the French sports daily. "I thought Le Trou was the end of the acting experience and experiment," he told interviewers later. "For a while, I managed to juggle both careers but, come the autumn of 1966, I had to resign from the newspaper."

By then, Constantin had acted in Maigret Voit Rouge (Maigret Sees Red, 1963), starring Jean Gabin as the detective, and renewed his friendship with Ventura in Les Grandes Gueules and Ne Nous Fâchons Pas (Let's Not Get Angry, 1965). He was the gangster lead of Mise à Sac (Pillaged, 1967) and Ventura's sidekick again as cops looking for a witness in Dernier Domicile Connu (Last Known Address, 1969). In spite of his looks, he was seduced by Bernadette Lafont in the erotic comedy La Fiancée Du Pirate (The Pirate's Fiancée, 1969) and appeared opposite Charles Aznavour and Robert Hossein in Jean Larriaga's La Part Des Lions (1971).

The Seventies saw Constantin return to his trademark parts in Les Caïds (Big Shots, 1972) and as the bachelor cop playing the family man in Il Etait Une Fois Un Flic (Flic Story, 1972). He eventually grew disillusioned with the film industry. "I got tired of being a puppet and having to obey the orders of clueless directors with no imagination whatsoever," he said.

His most notable Eighties role was alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo in the Foreign Legion adventure Les Morfalous (1984). In the Nineties, Constantin was still a regular presence on French television, with guest appearances on game shows and the series Paparoff in which he portrayed a retired policeman. In 1973, he published an autobiography, Ma Grande Gueule: du volley-ball au cinéma ("My Ugly Mug: from volley-ball to cinema").

Pierre Perrone