Marcel Marceau, whose lithe gestures and pliant facial expressions revived the art of mime and brought poetry to silence, died Saturday. He was 84.
Wearing white face paint, soft shoes and a battered hat topped with a red flower, Marceau – notably through his famed personnage Bip – played the entire range of human emotions onstage for more than 50 years, never uttering a word. Offstage, however, he was famously chatty. “Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop,” he once said.
A French Jew, Marceau escaped deportation during World War II – unlike his father, who died as Auschwitz – and worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children.
His biggest inspiration was Charlie Chaplin. Marceau, in turn, inspired countless young performers – Michael Jackson borrowed his famous “moonwalk” from a Marceau ketch, “Walking Against the Wind.”
Marceau performed tirelessly around the world until late in life, never losing his agility, never going out of style. In one of his most poignant and philosophical acts, “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death,” he wordlessly showed the passing of an entire life in just minutes.
“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?” he once said.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Marceau as “the master,” saying he had the rare gift of “being able to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language.”
“France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement.
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France. His father Charles, a butcher who sang baritone, introduced his son to the world of music and theater at an early age. The boy adored the silent film stars of the era: Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx brothers.
Bip – Marceau’s on-stage persona was his creator’s alter ego, a sad-faced double whose eyes lit up with child-like wonder as he discovered the world. Bip was a direct descendant of the 19th century harlequin, but his clownish gestures, Marceau said, were inspired by Chaplin and Keaton.
Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, “alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.”
Dressed in a white sailor suit, a top hat – a red rose perched on top – Bip chased butterflies and flirted at cocktail parties. He went to war and ran a matrimonial service.
In 1949, Marceau’s newly formed mime troupe was the only one of its kind in Europe. But it was only after a hugely successful tour across the United States in the mid-1950s that Marceau received the acclaim that would make him an international star.
Single-handedly, Marceau revived the art of mime.
“I have a feeling that I did for mime what (Andres) Segovia did for the guitar, what (Pablo) Casals did for the cello,” he once told The Associated Press in an interview.
As he aged, Marceau kept on performing at the same level, never losing the agility that made him famous.
“If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on,” he told The AP in an interview in 2003. “You have to keep working.”