`Master of silence' dies

World-renowned mime once fought the Nazis

Marcel Marceau 1923 - 2007

September 24, 2007|By Claudia Luther | Claudia Luther,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Marcel Marceau, the great French mime who for seven decades mastered silence and brought new life to an ancient art form, has died. He was 84. Mr. Marceau died Saturday in Paris, French news media reported, citing his former assistant, Emmanuel Vacca. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Yesterday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Mr. Marceau as "the master," saying he had the rare gift of "being able to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language."

Active until late in his life, Mr. Marceau toured the world for more than half a century, giving more than 15,000 performances. Each included several pieces featuring Bip, the beloved character he created early in his career. Annette Bercut Lust, author of From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond, said that Mr. Marceau's mentor, French mime master Etienne Decroux, "reinvented the art of mime to revive modern theater and the actor's art" whereas Mr. Marceau "popularized that art and brought it to the whole world."

Starting as a child mimic of Charlie Chaplin, Mr. Marceau by the age of 30 had become the single person to embody the ancient art of mime. He also took mime in new directions.

One of the secrets of his success, some critics said, was Mr. Marceau's ability to incorporate cinematic techniques into his stories. He could, as former Los Angeles Times critic Dan Sullivan wrote, present a montage of fleeting moments defining a character's "age, sex, class, even clothing" that audiences who'd been raised seeing the movies could easily follow.

Through the years, Mr. Marceau created dozens of adventures for Bip, the dreamy little poet, whose white face, ill-fitting striped shirt, too-long pants and smashed hat topped with a jaunty red carnation are perhaps the most familiar image of mime today.

Mr. Marceau also created many other "mimodramas," including Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," the story of a Russian clerk who works for a decade to buy an overcoat only to have it stolen. And innumerable solo sketches, such as "The Creation of the World" and, among his most revered works, one that showed the four stages of life -- youth, maturity, old age and death.

To be a mime, Mr. Marceau noted, one must be a sculptor, a painter, a writer, a poet and a musician. And one must also have incredible physical stamina and talent. "It's not dance," he said. "It's not slapstick. It is essence and restraint."

"The art of mime is an art of metamorphosis," he told a New York Times reporter some years ago. "It's not stronger than words. You cannot say in mime what you can say better in words. You have to make a choice. Mime is beyond words. It is the art of the essential."

Besides his performing, Mr. Marceau dedicated himself to being the muse for those who would follow him, including students who studied at L'Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris, which he opened in 1978. And he delighted in those who simply emulated him well, such as Michael Jackson, who developed his famed "moon walk" after seeing Mr. Marceau's "walk against the wind" routine.

But Mr. Marceau also lamented that some of his less-talented imitators had given mime a bad name. He especially rued the street mimes who worked popular tourist attractions such as San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

Mr. Marceau was a garrulous man offstage and never tired of recounting his life story or explaining the importance of mime -- hoping that he would not be the last to carry on its tradition.

Mr. Marceau appeared in numerous films, most famously Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, where as a joke he spoke the only word in the script: "No."

Marcel Mangel, whose father was a kosher butcher, was born March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, near the French-German border. The family moved to Lille and later to Limoges.

When the Germans invaded France during World War II, Marceau's father was taken to Auschwitz, where he died in 1944. Mr. Marceau was 21.

Marcel and his older brother, Alain, changed the family name to Marceau -- after Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, an 18th-century French general -- and both brothers became part of the French underground.

Mr. Marceau found he had a talent for forging documents to help young Jewish men avoid the Nazi concentration camps, and he also helped spirit children across the border to neutral Switzerland. Toward the end of the war, he joined the Free French Forces, fighting alongside U.S. troops under Gen. George S. Patton.

It was before 3,000 of General Patton's soldiers that Mr. Marceau gave his first major performance, which was favorably reviewed by Stars and Stripes.

In 1946, Mr. Marceau began his studies in Paris at the School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre as a student of Charles Dullin. He hoped to become an actor, but when he encountered Mr. Decroux, who proclaimed him a "born mime," Mr. Marceau changed his life's course.

"I was good at it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1973. "And then it began to possess me."

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