August 28, 2014

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Legendary Marceau gave face to silence

PARIS — Marcel Marceau, the master of mime who transformed silence into poetry with lithe gestures and pliant facial expressions that spoke to generations of young and old, has died. He was 84.

AP
Legendary French mime Marcel Marceau died at age 84.

Wearing white face paint, soft shoes and a battered hat topped with a red flower, Marceau breathed new life into an art that dates to ancient Greece. He played out the human comedy through his alter-ego Bip without ever uttering a word.

Offstage, he was famously chatty. “Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop,” he once said.

A French Jew, Marceau escaped deportation to a Nazi death camp during World War II, unlike his father, who died in Auschwitz.

Marceau worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children, and later used the memories of his own life to feed his art.

He gave life to a wide spectrum of characters, from a peevish waiter to a lion tamer to an old woman knitting, and to the best-known Bip.

His biggest inspiration was Charlie Chaplin. In turn, Marceau inspired countless young performers — Michael Jackson borrowed his famous “moonwalk” from a Marceau sketch, “Walking Against the Wind.”

Marceau’s former assistant, Emmanuel Vacca, said on French radio that the peformer died Saturday in Paris, but gave no details.

In one of Marceau’s most poignant and philosophical acts, “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death,” Marceau wordlessly showed the passing of an entire life in just minutes.

He took his art to stages across the world, performing in Asia, Europe and the United States, his “second country,” where he first performed in 1955 and returned every two years. He performed for Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Tireless, Marceau took his art to Cuba for the first time in September 2005.

“France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Marceau as having the rare gift of “being able to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language.”

The son of a butcher, the mime was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France. His father Charles, a baritone with a love of song, introduced his son to the world of music and theater at an early age. The boy was captivated by the silent film stars of the era: Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx brothers.

When the Nazis marched into eastern France, he fled with family members to the southwest and changed his last name to Marceau to hide his Jewish origins.

With his brother Alain, Marceau became active in the French Resistance, altering children’s identity cards by changing birth dates to trick the Nazis into thinking they were too young to be deported.

Because he spoke English, he was recruited to be a liaison officer with Gen. George S. Patton’s army.

His father was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944.

“Yes, I cried for him,” Marceau said. But he said he also thought of the others killed.

“Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug,” he told reporters in 2000. “That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another.”

Some of Marceau’s later work reflected the somber experiences. Even the character Bip, who chased butterflies in his debut, took on the grand themes of humanity.

Marcel’s life as a performer began with the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. He enrolled in Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art, studying with the renowned mime Etienne Decroux.

On a tiny stage at the Theatre de Poche, a smoke-filled Left Bank cabaret, he sought to perfect the style of mime that would become his trademark.

The on-stage persona Bip was born in 1947, a sad-faced double whose eyes lit up with childlike wonder as he discovered the world.

Bip was a direct descendant of the 19th century harlequin, but his clownish gestures, Marceau said, were inspired in part by Chaplin and Keaton.

Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, “alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.”

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, which dates to antiquity and continued until the 19th century through the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, or improvised theater.

“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. Marceau started his own company, then in 1978 the International School of Mime-Drama.

Marceau also made film appearances. The most famous was Mel Brooks’ 1976 film “Silent Movie” — he had the only speaking line: “Non!”

Marceau was married three times and had four children. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.