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Quintessential French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo dies at 88

By
Don Jacobson
Jean-Paul Belmondo arrives on the red carpet before a tribute honoring his 50-year career during the 64th annual Cannes International Film Festival on May 17, 2011. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI
Jean-Paul Belmondo arrives on the red carpet before a tribute honoring his 50-year career during the 64th annual Cannes International Film Festival on May 17, 2011. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 6 (UPI) -- Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, the biggest star of the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s whose film career spanned six decades, has died in Paris, his lawyer announced Monday. He was 88.

Belmondo, whose boxer's physique and good looks frequently landed him roles as charming gangsters and action heroes, died at his home, attorney Michel Godest said in a statement to The Financial Times.

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"He had been exhausted for some time," Godest said. "He died peacefully."

Belmondo for decades was France's most popular screen actor and biggest heart-throb. He remained active in films before a stroke in 2011 forced him into retirement.

The actor was hailed both at home and abroad as "the quintessential Frenchman" following his breakout role as a doomed, small-time criminal who falls in love with Jean Seberg's American visitor to Paris in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 New Wave classic Breathless.

In it, he launched what became his trademark persona of a cigarette-smoking, streetwise thug who possesses hidden depths of wisdom and common sense.

Breathless, along with Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows the previous year, launched a worldwide cinema revolution that rejected Hollywood's conformity and sought to wrest creative control from big studios and to put it in the hands of auteur film directors.

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"He will forever remain 'Le Magnifique,'" French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tribute to the actor on Twitter. "Jean-Paul Belmondo was a national treasure, full of panache and bursts of laughter, with loud words and swift body, sublime hero and familiar figure, tireless daredevil and magician of words. In him we all found ourselves."

In contrast to the criminals and rogues he frequently portrayed, Belmondo was actually born in the upscale Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1933, the son of a renowned sculptor, Paul Belmondo, according to Radio France International.

After performing poorly at school, he tapped his talent for boxing to win three straight round-one knockouts in a brief amateur career before finding his true calling at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.

His first film role came in the 1957 comedy On Foot, On Horse and On Wheels -- his part was eventually cut. But afterwards Belmondo's luck turned as he went on to make films with New Wave giants Godard, Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville.

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Starting in the late '60s, he broadened his appeal with action roles in major international productions where he was often cast opposite some of the world's most glamorous female stars.

Belmondo's career all but ended in 2011 when he suffered a stroke while on holiday in Corsica, RFI reported.

The Venice International Film Festival awarded him a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2016.

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