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Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceua was famed for sketches of "The Cage" and "Walking Against the Wind." (UCLA/Associated Press/File 1983)

Marcel Marceau, face of mime to millions, dies at 84

When Marcel Marceau died Saturday at 84, with him died Bip the Clown: the silent, white-faced stage persona of the man internationally recognized as the face of mime. What may also have died, or at least lost its greatest proponent, is the modern flowering of an art form that stretches back through the Italian Renaissance to its roots in ancient Greece.

"He was the living embodiment of a long tradition," said Gideon Lester, acting artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Mr. Marceau last performed in 2004. "And I can't imagine anyone following him."

Mr. Marceau's performance there displayed the delicate artistry and consummate skill that set him apart from his many imitators. To see him evoke a fish with a flutter of his hand, or transform himself into an elderly gossip with the flick of an imaginary knitting needle, was to experience the sometimes baffling allure of an art form that is, in late-night skits and film comedies, often reduced to a pretentious cliche. Onstage in Cambridge - and offstage, at a luncheon at the French consul's residence a few days later - Mr. Marceau revealed a self-deprecating wit and effortless grace that few could match.

After Mr. Marceau's daughter Camille Marceau announced his death in Paris of undisclosed causes, "surrounded by his family," French leaders flocked to issue tributes to a national icon, beloved not just for his performances onstage but for his history as a member of the French Resistance during World War II.

"France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors," President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. Prime Minister Francois Fillon noted Mr. Marceau's "rare gift: that of communicating with each and every one of us, beyond the barrier of language."

Mr. Marceau's signature style - the white face with clownish eyes, the striped pullover, baggy pants, and flower-trimmed top hat - grew out of the tradition of the 19th-century harlequin. That tradition, in turn, had its roots in Italian commedia dell'arte, with its stock characters and broad physical comedy. Some of Mr. Marceau's work, particularly the longer pieces he performed with his company, also showed the influence of such diverse theatrical traditions as the masks of ancient Greece and the stylized movements of Japanese Noh performers. But his cinematically concise gestures, Mr. Marceau said, were inspired in part by his childhood idols, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Not just the outfit but several of his most famous sketches, such as "The Cage" and "Walking Against the Wind," have become the stuff of parody. In part, said mime artist Robert Rivest, a former student of Mr. Marceau's who now teaches mime in Springfield, that's because of inept imitators.

"People copied the easiest aspects of Marcel Marceau, and that would be costumes and makeup," Rivest said yesterday. "So you'd get a person who'd put that on and maybe wasn't skilled in the art of mime. A mime has to be a poet, a dancer, an actor, and a playwright, and not everybody has that."

Beyond that, Lester said, mime has lost some popular appeal in a high-tech age because it doesn't translate well from theater to other media.

"It's purely live," Lester said. "One of the reasons that mime seems ridiculous is that it doesn't work on film; it doesn't work on television. It has to be conjured in front of you."

Even so, Mr. Marceau's American agent, Tony Micocci, said yesterday that Mr. Marceau sometimes expressed regret that he had not pursued a film career.

"He'd say, 'The reason people remember Charlie Chaplin is that he was on film,' " Micocci said.

But he remembered an opportunity for a film role a couple of years ago that Mr. Marceau passed up because it would have involved canceling a live performance.

"It wasn't in New York; it wouldn't have been a huge deal to reschedule. But he said, 'No, no, my public needs me. I must be there,' " Micocci said. "So I'm not so sure he would have pursued a film career if he'd had the chance."

Mr. Marceau did appear in Mel Brooks's comedy "Silent Movie," in which the mime delivered the only spoken line: "Non."

Born Marcel Mangel, the son of a Jewish butcher in Strasbourg, on March 22, 1923, the mime inherited his love of music and theater from his father, Charles. When the Nazis invaded France, the family fled to the southwest, but in 1944 Charles Mangel was sent to Auschwitz, where he died.

Marcel changed his name to Marceau, after a general in the French Revolution, and with his brother Alain became active in the French Resistance. He saved children from deportation by altering their identity cards to make them appear too young, and then, because he spoke English, was recruited as a liaison officer with General George S. Patton's army.

After the war, Mr. Marceau enrolled in Charles Dullin's acting school in Paris, where he met mime specialists Etienne Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault. Barrault launched Mr. Marceau's career by casting him as the harlequin in a stage production of "Children of Paradise," and soon Mr. Marceau - and Mr. Bip - were touring the world. With his company, which he formed in 1949 and later reconstituted as a school, he continued to perform until 2005; his final tour included Cuba, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil.

At the French consul's house in Cambridge after his 2004 appearance here, Mr. Marceau proved a charming - and tireless - raconteur. Throughout lunch, Mr. Marceau talked almost without pause, both in French and English.

Over coffee after the meal, he started to launch into another story, then interrupted himself.

"You have this in English," he asked, "a, how do you say, une blague?"

Yes, he was assured, we have jokes. Relieved that no one would mistake his anecdote for the truth, he launched into a shaggy-dog tale of Olympic proportions.

Those present may not remember the joke today, but they'll not forget the way he told it: with acrobatically raised eyebrows, puffed-out cheeks, and eyes full of mischief and delight. He had a room full of theater artists, journalists, and diplomats hanging on his every perfectly delivered word.

"Never get a mime talking," Mr. Marceau once said. "He won't stop."

Married three times, Mr. Marceau had four children. His daughter Camille said he would be buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and that funeral arrangements would be announced later.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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