Philippe Leotard, the French actor who worked with a roll call of France’s top directors in the prime of his career, died Aug. 25 of respiratory failure in a Paris clinic. He was four days away from his 61st birthday.
With his hang-dog, battered look, the outward sign of a long-running battle with drink and drugs, Leotard was the archetypal tortured artist.
In a self-mocking allusion to his politician brother Francois Leotard’s “establishment” position as France’s Minister for Defense, he once memorably referred to himself as the Ministre de la Defonce (the Minister for Getting High).
But Leotard’s inner turmoil found creative expression in more than 80 movie roles spanning 40 years — one of which, in “La Balance,” won him a Cesar (the French Oscar) in 1983 — as well as numerous television appearances.
He often played the lovable loser. He also wrote for and performed in the theater, wrote poetry and autobiographical novels and sang.
Born in Nice to a claustrophobically strict, bourgeois family of Corsican origin, Leotard was not cut out for a career in the arts but in a first gesture of rebellion, fled his home at age 18 to join the Foreign Legion. “Sooner or later, one has to murder one’s parents,” he wrote later.
His artistic bent soon asserted itself. He gave up soldiering to study literature, and when he met Ariane Mnouchkine in 1964, the two co-founded Paris’ acclaimed Theatre du Soleil, for which Leotard wrote and later acted.
Leotard’s movie career was launched by Francois Truffaut, who cast him in three movies, starting in 1970: “Domicile Conjugal,” “Two English Girls” and “Une Belle Fille comme moi.” He went on to work with the likes of Claude Sautet (“Max et les ferrailleurs”), Maurice Pialat (“La Gueule ouverte”); Claude Lelouch (“The chat et le souris”), Bertrand Tavernier (“Une Semaine de vacances”) and Jacques Doillon (“La Pirate”). He also appeared in John Frankenheimer’s “French Connection II.”
Leotard was at the peak of his popularity in 1982 when he won the Cesar for his performance in Bob Swaim’s thriller “La Balance” in which he played a pimp to his real-life partner Nathalie Baye’s prostitute. He scored a hit again opposite French comedy legend Coluche in Claude Berri’s “Tchao Pantin”.
But his excessive lifestyle pushed him to the fringes of France’s film industry, which rejected him, he said “like a woman who no longer loves you”. In the mid 80s he embarked upon successful twin careers as a writer and a singer, lending his gravely, almost inaudible voice to the songs of Leo Ferre as well as his own compositions.
His autobiographical works include the volumes “Portrait of the artist with a red nose” and “Clinique de la raison close.”
Survivors include his brother Francois, who also once served as culture minister and now represents the E.U. in Macedonia.