Cantinflas, Mexico’s most famous comic actor, died Tuesday of lung cancer, his son said. He was 81.

Thousands of mourners gathered Wednesday outside the funeral home where his body was taken.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari paid his respects there, and was to later attend a tribute at the capital’s Palace of Fine Arts.

After news of Cantinflas’ death broke, Mexican television began broadcasting his movies from the 1940s, and radio and television stations were filled with tributes and retrospectives.

Cantinflas, born Mario Moreno, made 49 films over a half-century but is best-known abroad for his role as Passepartout, Phileas Fogg’s devoted if bumbling servant in Mike Todd’s “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). Fogg was played by David Niven.

The success of that film lead to Columbia Pictures’ “Pepe” (1960), which toplined Cantinflas and featured an impressive list of guest stars, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Maurice Chevalier.

Originally released at 195 minutes, the film did poorly at the box office and effectively ended the actor’s career in the United States.

It had no such effect in Mexico, where he eventually had his own company, Cantinflas Films.

Mario Moreno Jr., the actor’s adopted son and only survivor, told reporters his father died at around 9:30 p.m. at his Mexico City home.

Cantinflas was diagnosed as having cancer during a check-up at a clinic in Houston this year.

He was in intensive therapy in Mexico City for several weeks, but spent the last days in his house.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

Cantinflas married Russian actress Valentina Moreno in the 1930s.

She died in 1966, and he never remarried.

Cantinflas died a millionaire, made wealthy by his movies and some judicious investments in expensive real estate, and in later years spent a lot in charitable works.

He lived in an exclusive area of Mexico City but also had a residence in Century City.

Mario Moreno, one of six boys and two girls of an impoverished mail carrier, was born Aug. 12, 1911, and was raised in Santa Maria de Redonda neighborhood of Mexico City.

He was a prize fighter in his teens, for a pittance.

But even in the ring he was so funny that a talent hawk offered him 80 cents a day to work in a circus tent show, and used the money to pay some of his schooling expenses.

Cantinflas is a meaningless name he invented to prevent his parents from knowing he was in show business in his early days.

They considered it a shameful occupation at the time.

In Los Angeles, Spanish language television station KMEX will air Cantinflas films “Asi Es mi Pierra” tonight at midnight, “El Barrendero” Friday at 9 p.m. and “Alli Esta el Detalle” Friday at midnight. KVEA, which regularly broadcasts a Cantinflas film retrospective, aired his “Gran Hotel” Wednesday night.

From staff reports and the Associated Press

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