Jacques Perrin, busy French actor and acclaimed wildlife documentary maker – obituary

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Jacques Perrin in 2019 after joining the French Academie des Beaux-Arts - ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images
Jacques Perrin in 2019 after joining the French Academie des Beaux-Arts - ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images

Jacques Perrin, who has died aged 80 was a French actor who played the beautiful blond naval conscript, artist and love interest for Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac in Jacques Demy’s jaunty 1967 musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a follow up to his Les Parapluies de Cherbourg which had made Deneuve one of France’s hottest young stars.

He was also known to international audiences for his role in the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1988) as Salvatore, a jaded film director looking back on his youthful self as Toto, a wide-eyed Sicilian street urchin, and his friendship with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a village projectionist.

Perrin went on to become an acclaimed producer and director, associated with the political thrillers of Costa-Gavras and known for art-house wildlife documentaries which helped to redefine the genre.

Jacques André Simonet was born on July 13 1941 in Paris. His father, Alexandre, was the manager of the Comédie-Française; his mother, Marie Perrin, whose name he would adopted professionally, was an actress.

Jacques Perrin with Claudia Cardinale in La Ragazza con la valigia (Girl with a Suitcase) - Giovan Battista Poletto/Reporters Associati & Archivi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Jacques Perrin with Claudia Cardinale in La Ragazza con la valigia (Girl with a Suitcase) - Giovan Battista Poletto/Reporters Associati & Archivi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Jacques studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique and was given his first substantial film roles by the Italian director Valerio Zurlini, who cast him in the romantic drama La Ragazza con la valigia, (1960, with Claudia Cardinale) and Cronaca Familiare (1962, with Marcello Mastroianni).

He would appear in some 100 films but, as he told The Daily Telegraph in 2003, he “wanted to be more than a mirror. So I made some documentaries with a friend who was Antonioni’s cameraman and I met Costa-Gavras.”

The Greek-French director persuaded him to combine acting and producing and together they made some of the period’s most powerful pictures – Section speciale, Etat de siege and Z (1969), about the real-life assassination of a Greek politician, which won an Oscar.

In it Perrin played an opportunistic photojournalist who discovers his conscience and helps to expose the perpetrators.

He worked as a producer on some 40 films, not all successful. He produced and co-starred with Julie Christie in The Roaring Forties (1982) based on the real-life story of Donald Crowhurst, the British sailor who disappeared while attempting a solo circumnavigation in 1969. The film did badly at the box office and it took Perrin a decade to pay off the debt.

Later he had better luck, in France at least, with Les Choristes (2004), in which he appeared as a celebrated conductor looking back at the arrival in his draconian boarding school of a kindly music teacher (Gérard Jugnot ) who faces up to the killjoy headmaster (François Berléand) and turns his class of orphaned boys into a choral force to be reckoned with.

Perrin appeared to change direction completely in the mid-1990s when he decided that the natural world could tell stories as fascinating as anything dreamt up by a scriptwriter.

There followed a series of features that transformed the scope of wildlife movies. Himalaya (1996), an austere travelogue which he co-produced with Christophe Barratier, won an Oscar nomination; Microcosmos (1996) was a captivating portrait of the insect world.

The making of Winged Migration (2002), which Perrin both produced and directed, involved film crews of more than 450 people following bird migrations through all seven continents to get close footage of birds in flight from planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons.

Much of the closest footage was of birds hatched from more than 1,000 eggs, representing 25 species, by ornithologists and students at a base in Normandy where Perrin also rented an airfield, and raised and “imprinted” to get used to aircraft.

The result, wrote a Telegraph reviewer, was “stupendous”.

Perrin is survived by his wife Valentine and by their two sons. An earlier marriage was dissolved.

Jacques Perrin, born July 13 1941 died April 21 2022

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