Philippe Noiret

'Cinema Paradiso' actor

Philippe Noiret, actor: born Lille, France 1 October 1930; married 1962 Monique Chaumette (one daughter); died Paris 23 November 2006.

Philippe Noiret was one of France's most popular actors on both stage and screen. Although he was no Apollo, his amiable face endeared him, too, to international audiences, notably in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988) and the 1994 hit Il Postino.

Indeed, his appeal seemed to lie in his ordinary appearance: critics described a "neighbourly" face, his "hangdog" and "world-weary" expression. But he succeeded always in giving an impression of inborn authority, physical composure and unforced elegance.

He was born in Lille in 1930; his father was in the clothes trade. Noiret was an indifferent scholar and spent his schooldays in and out of various prestigious schools in Paris, so he never attended university, but preferred to spend his youth in the bohemian enclaves of Montparnasse and Saint Germain.

This was where he started his long acting career, first of all in a comedy duo with Jean-Pierre Darras in which he played King Louis XIV in an extravagant wig opposite Darras as the dramatist Jean Racine. He was thus "discovered" by the stage photographer Agnès Varda when she worked for the great director Jean Vilar's TNP (Théâtre National Populaire).

But Noiret's major acting experiences were to be in the cinema. Varda put him in her first movie, La Pointe Courte (1954), and later declared: "I discovered in him a breadth of talent rare in a young actor." Sporting a rather comical pudding-basin cut, Noiret was the incarnation of a plump, lovelorn youth in the southern fishing port of Sète. He later admitted: "I was scared stiff, and fumbled my way through the part - I am totally absent in the film."

However, movie parts began to roll in. Noiret appeared in Louis Malle's adaptation of Raymond Queneau's Zazie dans le métro (1960) and went on to play second leads in Georges Franju's Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962), adapted from the François Mauriac novel, and Le Capitaine Fracasse ("Captain Fracasse", 1961), from Théophile Gautier's celebrated romantic adventure.

At this point, Noiret decided to give up work in the theatre, and began the long series of films which eventually totalled around 150 - including Jean-Paul Rappeneau's La Vie de Château ("Gracious Living", 1965), Yves Robert's Alexandre le Bienheureux (1967), Jean-Pierre Blanc's La Vieille Fille (1971), a remake of the 1939 Bette Davis movie The Old Maid, with Annie Girardot, and Le Vieux Fusil (Old Gun, 1976), for which he won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.

Noiret had by now come to the notice of Hollywood, where he starred in George Cukor's Justine (1969). He appeared with a French actor who became his life-long friend, Michel Piccoli, in Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz (1969), and in 1970 starred in Peter Yates's Murphy's War.

He made some of his most unforgettable appearances in Italian cinema. In the French/Italian production La Grande Bouffe (Blow Out, 1972) by Marco Ferreri, he played the judge, Philippe, who gorges himself on a surrealist banquet alongside Piccoli, Marcello Mastroianni and Ugo Tognazzi - all eating themselves to extinction. This film created a riot at the Cannes Film Festival, when most of the audience stormed out of the cinema in disgust.

Noiret's further Italian successes included Valerio Zurlini's magnificent fantasy Il Deserto dei Tartari (Desert of the Tartars, 1976), in which he starred with Vittorio Gassman. And in 1988 came Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso), in which a film-maker looks back on his childhood friendship with the projectionist at the local film house (Noiret), and which won an Oscar as best foreign-language film.

Back in France, in 1991 André Téchiné cast Noiret in J'embrasse pas (I Don't Kiss) as a melancholy old homosexual obsessed with young male flesh - a part which Noiret played with extreme delicacy and tact. In Gli Occhiali d'oro (The Gold-rimmed Glasses, 1987), based on Giorgio Bassani's novel about the cramped social life of post-war Ferrara, in Italy, he had played an elderly and respectable doctor, who is gradually suspected of being a covert homosexual with a passion for a beautiful young man, played touchingly by Rupert Everett.

For La Vie et Rien d'Autre (Life and Nothing But, 1990), Noiret won a second César. In Michael Radford's Il Postino (1994), he played the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, living in exile on a small Italian island, who befriends Mario, his lovelorn postman, and helps him to win the heart of a local waitress. In the same year, he was d'Artagnan in La Fille d'Artagnan (D'Artagnan's Daughter), with Sophie Marceau as his daughter. Noiret's last film, Trois Amis, is due for release next year.

James Kirkup

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