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Maria Casares

Maria Casares, the Spanish-born French actress whose stage and screen career spanned more than 50 years, died in her country home in La Vergnes, France, on Nov. 22.

The galvanizing performer, whom Le Monde called “the last tragedienne” was 74.

The daughter of a prominent lawyer-turned-politician who was violently opposed to Franco, Casares moved to Paris with her family at age 14 to live in exile. Stymied at first by the rolled R’s of her first language, Casares was an acclaimed performer on the French stage by age 20.

She was one of the nation’s major legit figures from the ’50s through the ’80s, interpreting the work of Sartre, Genet, Pirandello, Ibsen, Colette and also Camus, with whom she was romantically involved during World War II. Camus was en route to a dinner engagement with Casares on Jan. 4, 1960, when he was fatally injured in an auto accident.

Casares joined the Comedie-Francaise in 1952 — staying only two years — and went on to work with Jean Vilar at his celebrated Theatre National Populaire and at the Avignon Theater Festival, where she performed with Gerard Philipe and Vilar. After six years with the TNP, she became a free agent.

Her screen debut was in Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise” as the neglected wife of the mime Baptiste, played by Jean-Louis Barrault, who would later direct her onstage. She appeared in 20 films, most notably Robert Bresson’s “Les Dames du bois de Boulogne,” Christian-Jaque’s “La Chartreuse de Parme” and Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”

Onstage, Casares played the title role in “King Lear” in 1993. Her last stage appearance was in Michael Ondaatje’s “The Complete Works of Billy the Kid” this past February. She left the show a few days shy of the scheduled end of run due to fatigue brought on by an unspecified illness.

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