Sarkozy pays tribute to director

PARIS — French actor, director and producer Claude Berri, an institution in French cinema for more than half a century, died of a stroke Monday in Paris. He was 74. President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed him as “legendary.”

Known in France for his commercial instincts, Berri produced films including Roman Polanski’s “Tess” and Milos Forman’s “Valmont,” as well as films by Eric Rohmer, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Costa-Gavras.

As a director, his films included 1986′s “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des sources” (“Manon of the Spring”), both adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s vision of the French countryside. Other directing credits include “Lucie Aubrac,” “Germinal” and “Tchao Pantin.”

A producer for more than 60 films, Berri had two major box office successes in his later years. “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (Welcome to the Sticks) was 2008′s box office phenomenon in Gaul. The comedy starring Dany Boon and Kad Merad sold more than 20.4 million tickets in France — the most ever for a French film.

2007′s “La Graine et le mulet” (The Secret of the Grain) earned four Cesar awards — France’s equivalent of the Oscars — including film and director Abdellatif Kechiche. His production company, Renn Prods., and distribution outfit AMLF were acquired by Pathe during the 1990s.

Berri’s last acting role was alongside Johnny Depp and Charlotte Gainsbourg in 2004′s “Happily Ever After,” directed by Yvan Attal.

Nicknamed the godfather of French film, Berri worked with generations of top French actors from Yves Montand to Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Beart. He was in the midst of directing “Tresor” (“Treasure”) — his 20th directing project — when he died, said publicist Dominique Segall. “It will continue despite his departure,” she added.

Berri was born Claude Langmann in Paris, the son of a Jewish furrier. Earlier in his career, he acted in films by filmmakers including Claude Chabrol and Maurice Pialat. His 1965 short film “Le Poulet” won an Oscar.

Berri is survived by his son, producer and actor Thomas Langmann. Another son, actor Julien Rassam, died in 2002.

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