Just as European audiences once thought of Hollywood action pictures as synonymous with Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, Americans have come to associate quality French films with the name Gerard Depardieu.
Do a quick scroll of the great French films of the past 15 years -- "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," "The Return of Martin Guerre," "Danton" and "Jean de Florette," among them -- and you're bound to come up with plenty of Depardieu vehicles. Since making his screen debut in 1965 in a short and an unfinished adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" by Agnes Varda, the actor has appeared in, by his own estimation, "almost 80 films." And he's only 42. Not even the old-time Hollywood greats -- the Cagneys and the Bogarts -- could boast of such filmography.
Yet, for all his critical acclaim, Mr. Depardieu has remained a hero of the art-house cognoscenti. France's burly man of the street -- part poet, part stevedore -- hasn't caught on with Mr. and Mrs. Average Filmgoer.
But that could be changing.
Mr. Depardieu is now appearing in the thinking man's swashbuckler, "Cyrano de Bergerac" (due at the Charles Theatre next month), and is making his Hollywood debut in a robust romantic comedy called "Green Card," which opened locally Friday.
As Cyrano, he brings his energy and signature bullheadedness to a whole new audience. There is even talk of an Oscar nomination. As George Faure, the French composer in "Green Card" who marries a New York botanist to get around immigration laws, he gets to speak broken English and work his mulish charm on co-star Andie MacDowell (of "sex, lies & videotape").
Then Mr. Depardieu is set to return in early February in the restored, five-hour version of "1900," directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and first released in 1976. Mr. Depardieu co-starred opposite Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster.
With an occasional assist from a young translator, the actor talked recently about his unusual work methods and the decision to at long last "go Hollywood." He was drawn to "Green Card" because of its simplicity and because it had been tailored for him (by director-writer Peter Weir of "Dead Poets Society").
"It's a beautiful situation," he said. "I like the idea of a man who goes to New York and has to marry a woman to stay in the country. It is simple, uncomplicated. Also, I love Peter Weir. I was very impressed that this man who didn't know me wrote a script for me on the other side of the planet."
Actually, the Australian Mr. Weir rewrote the script with Mr. Depardieu in mind. The romantic comedy had been gathering dust in a bottom drawer for several years. It wasn't until Mr. Weir saw Mr. Depardieu in "Danton" and Mr. Weir's wife suggested a few changes (the protagonist was originally a British film buff in Hollywood) that the project was resurrected. The character may be named George Faure, but he's really Gerard Depardieu, right down to the provincial upbringing, the dagger tattoo on his right forearm, the early scrapes with gendarmes and time in reform school.
The shady past George describes to Ms. McDowell's Bronte is Mr. Depardieu's past.
"I got this when I was 12 years old," the actor said, pulling up his sleeve to reveal the dagger tattoo. "I wanted to be strong, tough. I was angry about everything. All of my tattoos mean something. The knife tattoo means that you were reported by someone and have sworn to have revenge."
There are even references to Mr. Depardieu's considerable waistline. In the movie, a joke is made of George's refusal to own up to his weight. Mr. Depardieu isn't as vain. "I am now 200 pounds. I weighed 250 during 'Cyrano.' I had trouble moving in the sword fights. It's the wine. The wine opens your appetite. Now I eat steamed vegetables and a little chicken."
"Originally, the concept for 'Green Card' didn't work," Mr. Weir explained later. "It was neither funny nor romantic, but labored, contrived. When I changed the setting to New York and made the hero a Frenchman, it started to come together. I constructed George to reflect the qualities I've loved most in Gerard's work -- the humor, the roughness, the physicality. It was purely and simply written for Gerard."
Six weeks later Mr. Weir had a script, but doubted that Mr. Depardieu would be attainable. "If he hadn't made a picture in English at age 40, I reasoned, he either didn't want to or he didn't speak English well enough."
Mr. Weir discussed the project with Mr. Depardieu by phone, then sent him the script, which was translated and recorded on )) an audio cassette. They talked again.
"I put the phone down with clammy hands," the director recalled. "His English was pretty bad, and my French wasn't much better. But at least we could communicate. He said he liked the fact that the characteras a foreigner, not an American, and that he would only have to speak enough English to seesaw through the language."
So they met in Paris and "sealed the deal. . . . We got on immediately," said Mr. Weir.