For more than a decade following the release of “Breathless,” Belmondo reigned as one of France’s top box office stars. The actor was likened alternately to James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando for his brooding, charismatic persona, and he proved able to work in virtually any genre. After “Breathless,” the cult that formed around him was dubbed le belmondisme by the French media. Unlike Dean, who was a rebel without a cause, Belmondo’s antihero persona was more existential, detached and irredeemable. With such magnetism, an American career could have been his for the asking, but he largely resisted studio-made productions and later in life openly criticized Hollywood for overly dominating film screens in France.
Though most closely associated with Godard, Belmondo worked with other great French directors of his generation including Truffaut (“Mississippi Mermaid”), Chabrol (“A Double Tour” aka “Leda”), Resnais (“Stavisky”) and Melville (three films, including the great “Leon Morin, Priest”). Like Bogart, Belmondo improved with age. He was never handsome, but his rugged features became lined with character, and his appeal never completely waned.
Onstage Belmondo mostly played comic characters, and he had small roles in movies including “Sois belle et tais-toi” before a supporting role in Chabrol’s “Les Tricheurs” in 1958 led to his selection by Godard to star in “Breathless,” which many actresses turned down before American Jean Seberg took the part. The hyperkinetic 1960 release, with its anti-establishment tone and homages to Hollywood gangster films, vaunted the French New Wave to the vanguard of world cinema and Belmondo along with it.
The actor worked constantly for the next several years, publishing a 1963 autobiography aptly titled “30 Years and 25 Movies.” It was the same year he was elected president of the French film actors union.
After “Breathless” he took on the Marguerite Duras production “Moderato cantabile,” directed by Peter Brook and co-starring Jeanne Moreau. Disliking the experience, he fled to Italy, where he took a co-starring role in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” as a studious intellectual martyr — about as far from his persona as possible. In Melville’s “Leon Morin, Priest” (1962), he again worked against type as a poor country priest. He also appeared in Melville’s “Le Doulos” and “L’aine des Ferchaux” over the next couple of years.
Through the ’60s he made other Godard films, such as “A Woman Is a Woman” and “Pierrot le Fou,” even as the director became increasingly less tied to narrative. He starred in Philippe de Broca’s “Cartouche” and, probably his biggest hit of the period, the adventure spoof “That Man in Rio.”
There were also clunkers like “Backfire” in 1965 and the big Hollywood production “Is Paris Burning?,” in which he had little to do. He worked with Truffaut only once, in “Mississippi Mermaid,” opposite Catherine Deneuve, at the end of the decade.
During the ’70s, according to Variety box office reports, the 14 films he made averaged 655,800 admissions in Paris alone, making him far and away the country’s most popular star and one of the biggest names in Europe. He was paired with France’s other major star, Alain Delon, in the period piece “Borsalino” in 1970, though a later period piece, “Stavisky,” from director Alain Resnais, was better. He came largely to specialize in action adventures, some produced by his Cerito films. His 1979 film “Flic ou voyou” (Cop or Hood) sold more than a million tickets in Paris and grossed more than $14 million in France. His 1980 release “Le Guignolo” topped even that.
It was small wonder then that he resisted going Hollywood despite several offers such as “The Love of Four Colonels.” He was content being a major star on the continent, and his stature only grew as the years went by; he was one of France’s biggest box office draws until the mid-1980s.
He also became more openly critical of American distributors, whom he felt were strangling French production by taking up all available screens. For instance, when his 1996 film “Desire” could manage only 29 screens throughout France, he lambasted American distributors’ power in his country.
A year earlier he appeared on in a modern adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” as Jean Valjean.
Belmondo won a Cesar for best actor in 1989 for his work in Claude Lelouch’s “Itineraire d’un enfant gate,” though he refused the award.
He also did TV and especially stage work in France, though a stroke in 2001 put an end to the latter activity and kept him off the bigscreen until 2009’s “Un Homme et son chien” (A Man and His Dog).
Belmondo was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, but the family soon moved to the left bank of Paris, where his father, a sculptor, taught at the Academie des Beaux Arts; his upbringing was distinctly middle class. Belmondo studied acting at a private school after a tentative jab at a boxing career. Following a stint in the French Army stationed in Algeria, he entered the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique in 1953 and graduated in 1956.
He won a career achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn in 2009.
Belmondo was twice divorced. Script supervisor Patricia Belmondo, a daughter by his first wife, died in 1994. He is survived by three children, including Paul Belmondo, an actor and racecar driver.