Swiss-born actor Michel Simon was one of the most popular and beloved actors of the French cinema. The son of a sausage maker, Simon drifted through his early years as a boxer, commercial photographer and acrobat.
He turned “straight” actor in 1918, making his Geneva stage debut two years later. Essentially a theatre performer throughout the 1920s, Simon occasionally appeared in small film roles, notably as Jean Le Maitre in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Full film stardom came his way when, in 1931, Simon starred in the movie version of his great stage success Jean De La Lune.
His screen performances of the 1930s remain fresh and alive even after six decades, largely due to Simon’s sudden spurts of improvisation; Jean Renoir, who directed Simon in La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), has credited the actor with introducing the “improv” technique to French filmmaking.
Capable of harnessing his rocky-road face, bulky body and shambling manner for the purposes of menace as well as mirth, Simon proved a fearsome creature in Jean Vigo’s last film, L’Atalante (1934).
He also worked with such A-list directors as Marcel Carne, Julien Duvivier, and Rene Clair, appearing in the latter’s Beauty and the Devil (1950) as both Faust and Mephistopheles!
In 1957, Simon’s film career nearly came to an abrupt end when he suffered facial and body paralysis as a by-product of an impure makeup dye. Despite his reduced physical mobility, he painstakingly made a comeback, winning several awards for his penetrating portrayal of an anti-Semitic French peasant in Claude Berri’s The Two of Us (1967).
All reports indicate that Michel Simon conducted his private life in the manner of one of his gross, eccentric film characters: he lived alone on a huge country estate, sharing space with a pet parrot and four apes.
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