French screen legend Michel Piccoli dead at 94

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French actor Michel Piccoli starred in a string of classics from "Belle de Jour" to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"
French actor Michel Piccoli starred in a string of classics from "Belle de Jour" to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"

Michel Piccoli, one of the most original and versatile French actors of the last half century, has died aged 94, his family said Monday. He died "in the arms of his wife Ludivine and his children Inord and Missia after a stroke", the family told AFP. Piccoli starred in a string of classics which redefined world cinema, from Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" to a typically memorable turn opposite Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" in 1963. A masterful performer with a wickedly malicious edge, he managed to carve out a hugely prolific career as both an art house icon and a kind of French Cary Grant. Like Grant and other Hollywood all-rounders Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, Piccoli was able to adapt himself to virtually any kind of material without altering his essential everyman screen persona. With his bald forehead, vast eyebrows and sly grin, he hopped easily from seducer to cop to gangster to pope, with a predilection in the 1970s and 1980s for ambiguous and cynical roles. - Actor and activist - Yet despite his omnipresence, with Bunuel alone casting him in six of his films, Piccoli never won a French Oscar -- the Cesar -- despite being nominated four times including for Louis Malle's "Milou in May" and Jacques Rivette's "La Belle Noiseuse" in 1991. He did, however, win best actor at the Cannes film festival in 1980 for playing a tortured Italian judge in Marco Bellocchio's "A Leap in the Dark" and the following year shared best actor at Berlin for "Une etrange affaire". Piccoli was a life-long left-winger who counted the philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre among his friends, but that did not stop him raging against repression in the old Eastern Bloc and supporting the Polish trade union, Solidarity. One of his best known films outside France was Marco Ferreri's 1973 "La Grande Bouffe" (Blow-Out), in which a group of male friends shut themselves up in a house with prostitutes and try to eat themselves to death. He said the secret to his craft was disguising his own personality. "I do not put on an act... I slip away behind my characters. To be an actor you have to be flexible," Piccoli said. French actor Michel Piccoli starred in a string of classics from "Belle de Jour" to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"