Jacques Perrin, French film star and producer, is dead at 80

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Jacques Perrin, French film star and producer, is dead at 80
A French actor, he was a heartthrob in the musical “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” a photojournalist in the thriller “Z” and a jaded director in the hit “Cinema Paradiso.”

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Jacques Perrin, a comely and soft-spoken veteran French actor — he didn’t smolder so much as twinkle — who went from starring in musical and dramatic films to directing and producing them, most notably the political thrillers of Costa-Gavras and his own poetic documentaries about the natural world, died April 21 in Paris. He was 80.

His son, Mathieu Simonet, confirmed the death. No cause was given.

Perrin was a lonely and gallant teenager in the Italian melodrama “Girl With a Suitcase” (1961), in which he tries to rescue a down-and-out beauty played by Claudia Cardinale who has been ditched by his lout of an older brother.

He was a dreamy sailor in Jacques Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” a giddy, candy-colored 1967 French musical (now considered a camp classic) that starred Catherine Deneuve and her sister, Francoise Dorléac, as a pair of twins looking for love and finding it with Perrin, his hair bleached like straw (and looking rather like a young David Hockney) and Gene Kelly. (Dorléac died in a car crash shortly after the film was made.)

That same year, Perrin and Natalie Wood appeared as chaste young lovers whose elders urge them to get on with it in “All the Other Girls Do,” an Italian farce.

Perrin went on to play an opportunistic photojournalist who discovers his conscience in “Z,” a 1969 political thriller by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born director. Perrin also produced the movie, a feat of “accounting acrobatics,” as he put it, since no one else would touch the film. (It is about the real-life assassination of a Greek politician.) Altogether, Perrin appeared in some 100 films, and produced close to 40.

To American audiences, however, he was best known for his role in “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). He played Salvatore, a world-weary film director who was once a wide-eyed 8-year-old nicknamed Toto. In flashback, Toto is seen in thrall to the movies he watches at a theater in a small postwar Sicilian village and under the wing of father figure Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the philosophical projectionist who slices out the naughty bits — the on-screen kisses — on the orders of the village priest.

The final scene was a humdinger: Perrin, weeping gorgeously in a darkened theater, once more in thrall. Critics were dry-eyed, but audiences were not, and it was a smash hit that won all sorts of awards, including the Oscar for best foreign film and a Golden Globe.

Perrin played a similar role in “The Chorus” (2004), which he also produced, about orphaned boys in a grim boarding school who are rescued by a singing teacher who helps them form a choir. It, too, was a hit, at least in France, inspiring a frenzy of amateur singing, just as “High School Musical” did a few years later in the United States. Perrin, speaking to The New York Times, described “The Chorus” as “a fragile and precious movie about childhood memories.”

Other films were less successful. He produced and starred in “The Roaring Forties,” a 1982 drama about a sailor on a nonstop solo race around the world, based on the real-life adventures of Donald Crowhurst, a British sailor who disappeared while attempting a solo circumnavigation in 1969. Though Julie Christie, an otherwise reliable box-office draw, was his co-star, the film did so poorly — a “shipwreck,” as Le Monde put it — that it took Perrin 10 years to pay off the debt he accrued while making it.

“He worked on what was interesting to him,” Simonet, who is also an actor, director and producer, and who often collaborated with his father, said in a phone interview. “His purpose was not to make blockbusters, even if some of his films have become blockbusters. He bet his life all the time. He followed his dreams, with no limit.”

Jacques André Simonet was born on July 13, 1941, in Paris. His father, Alexandre Simonet, was the manager of La Comédie-Française, Paris’ centuries-old state run theater; his mother, Marie Perrin, was an actress, and Jacques took her last name as his stage name. He left school at 15 and worked as a grocery clerk before studying at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Valentine Perrin, who has also produced films; their sons, Maxence and Lancelot; and a sister, Janine Baisadouli. His first marriage, to Chantal Bouillaut, ended in divorce.

Perrin, an ardent environmentalist, made hypnotic films about the natural world. “Microcosmos” (1996), is all about insects. “Oceans” (2009) dives underwater. “Winged Migration” (2001) takes to the skies as it tracks a year in the life of migrating birds, like cranes, storks and geese, as they fly thousands of miles through 40 countries and all seven continents. In the Times, Stephen Holden called it “a sweeping global tour from a bird’s-eye view.”

“Winged Migration” was made under extraordinary circumstances over three years, with 14 cinematographers flying with the birds in ultralight aircraft built for that purpose. Balloons, remote control gliders and other devices were also used to film among the birds, half of which were trained at Perrin’s house in Normandy.

These birds were exposed to and imprinted with the aircraft as chicks — as Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian animal zoologist and ornithologist, once famously discovered, chicks will become attached to the first large moving object they encounter — so that once they took flight, the crews could accompany them, like members of the flock.

“Birds don’t normally fly beside aircraft, nor can they be trained like circus animals,” Patricia Thomson wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 2003. “So Perrin began what would become the largest imprinting project ever. Over 1,000 eggs — representing 25 species — were raised by ornithologists and students at a base in Normandy where Perrin also rented an airfield. During incubation and early life, the chicks were exposed to the sound of motor engines and the human voice, then were trained to follow the pilot — first on foot, then in the air. These birds would be the main actors, the heroes of flight. The rest of the footage would involve thousands of wild birds, filmed in their natural environments.”

Perrin wanted moviegoers to feel as the birds did and to feel, as Simonet said, that they could reach out and touch them.

The ultralight aircraft weren’t easy to fly, Perrin told James Gorman of the Times. Two crashed, leaving the pilot and the cameraman with minor injuries; no winged creatures were hurt.

“Sometimes at 10,000 feet a bird would land on a cinematographer’s lap and have to be nudged off with one hand while he held a heavy 35-millimeter film camera in the other,” Gorman wrote. “One rule was absolute: No filmmakers with vertigo need apply.”

The scientific consultants on the film were so moved by the experience of flying with the flocks that when they landed, many burst into tears.

“They don’t say so splendid words,” Perrin told Gorman. “They cry.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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