Michel Serrault, 79, actor

Frenchman starred in 'La cage aux folles'

Prolific French thesp Michel Serrault, a versatile staple of stage and screen and three-time Cesar winner best known for originating the role of cross-dressing gadfly Albin Mougeotte, alias “Zaza Napoli” in “La Cage aux Folles,” died July 29 of cancer in the Normandy town of Honfleur. He was 79.

The future thesp, a devout Catholic who seriously considered the priesthood before opting for theater as a teen, was born into a modest family, hisfather a salesman who tore tickets at night at a legit theater.

In 1952 Serrault and Jean Poiret formed a comic duo, performing their own sketches on the cabaret circuit throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

Serrault made his screen debut in 1954 and appeared the following year in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s surprise-ending classic “Les Diaboliques.”

Impressed by Serrault and Poiret’s stage antics, Sacha Guitry cast the pair in his final film, 1957’s “Assassins et voleurs” in which Serrault, who would often play cops, detectives and criminals, started out as a screen burglar. For the next 15 years, programmers and run-of-the-mill screen comedies occupied Serrault alongside a respectable legit career.

But it wasn’t until 1973 and “La Cage aux Folles” — the stage comedy written by Poiret in which the two men played a long-term gay couple, of which Serrault was the more flamboyant — that both their reputations were secured.

Two million people saw the play during its five-year Paris run. Poiret and Serrault were notorious for improvising, sometimes extending the two-hour show so much that audiences, in stitches, missed the last Metro train home.

Serrault reprised his role (opposite Ugo Tognozzi) in the smash 1978 film version — for which he won his first Cesar — and its two sequels.

A chameleon equally at home in comedy and drama, Serrault acted in more than 130 films, including Bertrand Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” (1978) and “Mortelle randonee” opposite Isabelle Adjani (1982); and Claude Miller’s ode to cop vs. suspect one-upmanship “Garde a vue” (1981), for which he won his second Cesar.

He also starred in Claude Sautet’s “Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud” opposite Emmanuelle Beart (1995), for which he won his third Cesar; Mathieu Kassovitz’s ill-received hitman pic “Assassin(s)” which competed at Cannes in 1996; and Gallic hit “The Girl From Paris” (2001), in which Serrault’s ornery farmer begrudgingly sells his farm to a determined city slicker played by Mathilde Seigner. Christian Carion (“Joyeux Noel”) had hoped to lense a sequel next year.

Serrault also made 11 films with iconoclastic Gallic helmer Jean-Pierre Mocky. Despite his own ardent religious convictions, Serrault was happy to mock organized religion in Mocky’s satire “Le Miracule.”

Mocky said of his friend: “He managed to do more with his ordinary physique than actors who had genuine handsomeness to work with.”

Serrault also made half a dozen pics for film specialist and pioneering TV host Pierre Tchernia and worked often for Jean Yanne when the late thesp stepped behind the camera. “Phoning” from the great beyond, Serrault provided the pivotal voice of the protagonist’s dead father in Arthur Joffe’s surreal comedy “Local Call!” (2003).

Serrault met his wife Juanita (known as Nita) while both were acting students. The eldest of their two daughters, Caroline, was accidentally killed at age 19, when her father was about to start his fifth year as Albin the transvestite in “La Cage aux Folles.” Ironically, the car that killed her held five youngsters who had been chasing transvestites from the Bois de Boulogne near the Serrault home in the Paris suburb of Neuilly.

Besides his wife whom he wed in 1958, he is survived by their daughter Nathalie, an actress and director.