Philippe Léotard

Ange-Philippe Léotard, actor, writer and singer: born Nice, France 28 August 1940; (three daughters); died Paris 25 August 2001.

Ange-Philippe Léotard, actor, writer and singer: born Nice, France 28 August 1940; (three daughters); died Paris 25 August 2001.

His first name was Ange – Angel, like Thomas Hardy's Angel Clare he said, a name he had to live down, but couldn't help living up to.

The actor, writer, poet and chanson singer Philippe Léotard loved and admired his younger brother François, an ambitious republican politician whom François Mitterrand elevated to defence minister in 1993. "He could make me Ministre de la Défense" was Philippe's reaction – " la défense" being street slang for the drug scene. "François and me, we could each do our own thing – he selling missiles, me pushing joints." A typically subversive crack.

They were born into a very strait-laced Catholic family of Corsican origin. Their father was a big shot in the Audit Office and mayor of Fréjus. Their mother was severely authoritarian. It is often from such repressive origins that rebels arise. "You have to assassinate your parents" was Philippe's advice to the young. He did it by running away to join the Foreign Legion.

He attended, off and on, a suspiciously heteroclite array of schools before graduating with a degree in foreign languages from the Sorbonne. He spent a few years teaching philosophy at a school in Paris to help finance him when in 1964, with Ariane Mnouchkine, he co-founded Le Théâtre du Soleil, which was to become one of the leading avant-garde theatres in Europe.

Léotard translated and adapted its early productions: the sensationally successful Capitaine Fracasse (1966) based on Théophile Gautier's picaresque novel about strolling players. His version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was presented in 1968, and he adapted most of Arnold Wesker's early works, beginning with The Kitchen. When one of the actors had an accident, Mnouchkine persuaded Léotard to take his place, which was the beginning of his acting career.

He started to get small parts in films, but continued to appear on stage, in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (1980), Bernard-Marie Koltès' Combat de nègre et de chiens directed by Patrice Chéreau at Nanterre (1983) and David Mamet's American Buffalo (1986).

It was during this long formation period that Léotard's drinking became a problem, and he graduated from "soft" drugs to cocaine in 1975. He began appearing as a chanson singer in the 1990s. On Léo Ferré's death in 1996, he paid tribute to his friend by singing Ferré's immortal theme song, " Avec le temps". The public was intrigued by his new, casual approach to melody, which often became Sprechgesang in an untrained voice hoarse with chain-smoking, hard spirits and drugs. Yet there was something deeply touching in the defencelessness of his stage presence, which sometimes reduced the audience to tearful laughter at his clown's woebegone smile in its well-etched brackets of flesh and with its deep off-and-on dimples.

But it was in writing and in the cinema that Philippe Léotard discovered his real self. He had the self-destructive impulses of a phenomenally gifted child who smashes his toys and his PC. His anti-social character emerged clearly in films under the guidance of fine directors, great and small.

He appeared in more than 70 films and television movies, and in 1982 won a César for best performer of the year in Bob Swaim's La Balance (with Nathalie Baye, the companion he lived with for 10 years). He worked for François Truffaut: Domicile conjugal (1970), Les deux anglaises et le continent (1972), Une belle fille comme moi (1972). There were popular comedies like Tchao pantin (1983) with the much less subtle clown Coluche, and Jacques Doillon's La Pirate (with Jane Birkin). He became a favourite of Claude Lelouch, in whose 1994 version of Les Misérables he appeared as a totally immoral Thénardier.

Directors and audiences saw behind the battered boxer's mask with its brow's lines of manuscript music and the puffed eyes of a drug addict an angelic beauty of spirit and forgave him all his escapades. He appeared in court in May 1995 for possession and use of cocaine: 18 months' suspended sentence.

Léotard was a good and truly original poet and chansonnier, like no one else, refusing to belong to any literary movement. He cut only a few discs: A l'amour comme à la guerre ("All's Fair in Love and War") and Je rêve je dors ("I Dream I'm Sleeping"), both from 1996, were the best.

He published several books of excellent, controversial and funny poetry and prose, in which he showed a mastery of the Oriental one-line poem and a gift for aphorism: "The most difficult thing in life is to make love to the woman you love." One of his song lyrics from Portrait de l'artiste au nez rouge (1988) contains a refrain that defines his attitude exactly:

It's very sweet, when the seas are high,

To take the measure of one's age,

And contemplate in all serenity

From the deck of your sinking ship

The boobies bronzing on the beach.

The cover of that inspired volume shows his painting of Rimbaud, who along with Antonin Artaud was his favourite poet. On his last recording, Demi-mots amers (2000), he reads the whole of Rimbaud's long poem Le Bateau ivre. And ivre (drunk) was what Ange-Philippe Léotard always was – drunk on life itself.

James Kirkup

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