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French cinema mourns its last 'Grand Duc': Jean-Pierre Marielle

Jean-Pierre Marielle at home in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris in 2012
Jean-Pierre Marielle at home in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris in 2012 JOEL SAGET / AFP
3 min

Jean-Pierre Marielle, one of France’s best loved actors, died on Wednesday, aged 87,  after a long illness. He starred in more than 100 comedies and dramas, and was the last of the "Grand Ducs" - the film by Patrice Leconte in which he starred alongside Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort. 


"We always have the impression that the actors we love are immortal," said fillmaker Patrice Leconte on Wednesday shortly after the death of Jean-Pierre Marielle, describing his friend as a "charming ogre".

Of himself, Marielle said he'd "been reproached for many things in my life, but never for failing to be original".

Tall, broad-shouldered, with a salt and pepper beard and ironic look, he had strong presence on stage and screen which attracted filmmakers like Leconte and Bertrand Tavernier.

Success didn't come quickly though. He was 42 before he got recognition in the profession for his role in Tavernier's Que la fête commence.

His early successes were in mainly comic roles such as the exuberant lover and umbrella seller in the 1975 Les galettes de Pont-Aven by Joel Séria. Such roles seem heavy and sexist now but these were the swinging seventies where men could sit around drinking beer, munching slices of saucisson and making bawdy jokes.

"I've tended to play the ordinary Frenchman, the clumsy womaniser from the suburbs," Marielle said "but my passion has been more with theatre than film."

"He had the power that only theatre produces," said actor Fabrice Luchini on RTL.

Theatre may have been his passion but film made him famous. He was nominated for a César (France's Oscar) for his role as the unforgettable music teacher in Tous les matins du monde by Alain Corneau. It was a blockbuster in 1991.

But despite both critical and popular acclaim he never would get a César.

He was more successful on television, winning an award for best actor in 1993 for The Controversy of Valladolid, adapted from the novel by Jean-Claude Carrière.

And in 1994 he won France's top theatre award - the Molière - for his role in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.

A leading member of the "Bande à Bébel"

Marielle was one of the last surviving members of the “Bande à Bébel”, a group of actors who met at the Conservatoire national supérieur d’art dramatique de Paris in the 1950s. It included Jean-Paul Belmondo, Claude Rich, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort. And later Annie Girardot, Françoise Fabian and Jean-Pierre Mocky.

As students, they would meet outside of acting school to perform in bistros and on the streets of Paris.

"I'm devastated," said Belmondo on Thursday. "Jean-Pierre was more than a friend. I was his shadow, he was mine. France has lost a great actor."


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