Jean-Paul Belmondo death: French star of Breathless dies aged 88

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Jean-Paul Belmondo at Cannes Film Festival in 1964 (AFP/Getty)
Jean-Paul Belmondo at Cannes Film Festival in 1964 (AFP/Getty)

Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor who rose to fame as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless, has died aged 88.

News of Belmondo’s death was confirmed by his agent to AFP.

Nicknamed Bébel by French fans, Belmondo was one of the last surviving icons of the French New Wave.

Known for his mocking, flippant and streetwise onscreen persona (his friend and fellow actor Jean Rochefort described him as “a gangster who had made the conservatory, who didn’t run the streets”), Belmondo caused a stir among French cinemagoers with his rugged good looks.

Born in 1933 in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, he struggled at various private schools before briefly trying to make it as a boxer. He then applied to the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Arts and was accepted in 1952, going on to enjoy success in several theatre productions.

Godard, then a critic at French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, spotted Belmondo during his performance in the 1958 production of Marc Allegret’s Un Drôle de Dimanche. He cast him in his short film, Charlotte and Her Boyfriend, dubbing his own voice over Belmondo’s.

Belmondo scored his first lead film role later that year, in Henri Aisner’s Les Copains du Dimanche, around the same time he was receiving attention for his performance in the play, Oscar. It was the latter which helped land him a role in the gangster flick Classe Tous Risques (1960), as a young gangster aiding Lino Ventura’s hunted murderer.

Belmondo and Raquel Welch in 1977’s ‘L'animal’ (Getty)
Belmondo and Raquel Welch in 1977’s ‘L'animal’ (Getty)

In his breakthrough role as Michel Poiccard in Godard’s Breathless, Belmondo assured his status as a darling of the New Wave and became known for his performances as hard men with a seductive edge. At the time, The New York Times observed that Belmondo was being offered “more acting assignments than he can handle”.

Among his roles in the early Sixties were a retired gangster in A Man Named Rocca, and as an alcoholic with Jean Gabin in A Monkey in Winter. He went against type in 1962’s Cartouche, as a swashbuckling adventurer opposite Italian-Tunisian actor Claudia Cardinale.

Belmondo also reunited with Godard for the musical, A Woman is a Woman and later in 1965 for Pierrot le Fou, where he returned to playing the type of meta, self-aware gangster that made his name.

With his ‘Les Distractions’ co-stars Alexandra Stewart, left, and Sylva Koscina in 1960 (Getty)
With his ‘Les Distractions’ co-stars Alexandra Stewart, left, and Sylva Koscina in 1960 (Getty)

Whilst some of his compatriots like Alain Delon made moves to Hollywood, Belmondo was never interested in learning English and moving to the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Best known for his work with Godard, Belmondo also worked several times with another legend of the New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville. Together, they made the crime classic, Le Doulos and the hardboiled, US set, Magnet of Doom.

Commercially, Belmondo was one of the biggest stars in France throughout the 1960s and 1970s, his popularity only rivalled by that of Delon, who with his smooth, exquisite features was a stark physical contrast to the crooked-nosed Belmondo.

He could also be seen in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, alongside Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and David Niven.

With a friend during the filming of 'Letters By a Novice' in 1960 (Getty)
With a friend during the filming of 'Letters By a Novice' in 1960 (Getty)

Though he continued acting into the 1980s Belmondo’s output slowed dramatically. Indeed by the end of the 1970s, audiences were starting to get used to seeing him only one movie a year.

Belmondo married twice. First to actor, Elodie Constantin from 1952 to 1968 and then many decades later to Natty Tardivel from 2002 to 2008.

He had three children with Constantin, including Paul, who became a popular racing driver, and Patricia who was killed in a fire in 1993.

Belmondo had another child, born in 2003, with his second wife.

Belmondo, once an amateur boxer, in the ring in Paris in the Sixties (AFP/Getty)
Belmondo, once an amateur boxer, in the ring in Paris in the Sixties (AFP/Getty)

In 2001, the actor was hospitalised with a stroke after which he was seldom seen on screen.

Belmondo was recently photographed at his 88th birthday party celebrations with family.

No cause of death has yet been announced. The actor is survived by three children.

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