Jean-Paul Belmondo, the boxer-turned-international French art-house superstar, has died. Belmondo came to celebrity as the Bogart-obsessed crook Michel Poiccard in Jean-Luc Godard’s watershed masterpiece Breathless. The hugely influential film helped usher in the French New Wave of cinema and led to roles in Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? and Francois Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid. But although the actor was most closely associated with French art movies, Belmondo spent the 70s and 80s starring in action pictures in which he did his own stunts. His lawyer confirmed Belmondo’s death; though, they gave no cause of death. He was 88.
On April 9, 1933, Belmondo was born in Neuilly-sur Seine, a city west of Paris, to sculptor Paul Belmondo, a well-regarded artist in his own right. As a child, Belmondo’s focus was sports, playing soccer and training as a boxer. Though his prospects in the ring were promising, Belmondo gave up the gloves at 16, during a bout with tuberculosis. After he recovered, Belmondo turned to acting and was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire in 1952.
With his boxer’s nose and ruffian demeanor, Belmondo caught the attention of director Jean-Luc Godard. In Godard’s Breathless, Belmondo would play Michel, an effortlessly cool, gangster-film wannabe who kills a cop after stealing a car. The role made Belmondo a fashion icon, the epitome of New Wave style and resolve, and earned him the ironic nickname “the French Bogart.”
Throughout the 60s, Belmondo starred in works by luminaries of French cinema, including director René Clément and Francois Truffaut. The latter called him “without doubt the best, most complete actor” of his generation. He starred in three films for Jean-Pierre Melville, Leon Morin, Priest, Le Doulos, and Magnet of Doom, and two more for Godard, A Woman Is A Woman and Pierrot le Fou, both classics in the director’s canon.
By the 1970s, Belmondo found his way to action movies, performing his own stunts and injuring himself on numerous occasions. Hanging from helicopters, jumping onto moving buses, and being dumped out of a truck into a quarry were all in a day’s work for Belmondo. Appearing thrillers like Henri Verneuil’s The Night Caller and The Burglars, Belmondo put his tough-guy act to the test, beating Tom Cruise to the punch as a marquee idol willing to put his life on the line for the scene.
Despite Belmondo being a major box-office draw, his run of action films ended in the mid-80s. He didn’t quit acting, though, and he appeared in movies throughout the 80s and 90s. Then, in 2001, Belmondo recovered from a stroke, which brought his acting career to a halt. The stroke left him paralyzed on the right side of his body. Nevertheless, he starred proudly in this condition in his last film, 2008’s A Man And His Dog. “It’s me,” he told The New York Times the following year, “without any special effects.”
Throughout the 2010s, he received numerous honorary awards, including a Palm d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Lion at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. After receiving the award in Venice, he told reporters, “I would say I’ve done everything I wanted to. I love the sun. I love the sea, voila.”
Belmondo divorced two times and is survived by children, including actor and racecar driver Paul Belmondo. His daughter, script supervisor Patricia Belmondo, died in 1994.
With a diverse career of more than 80 films, Belmondo said he enjoyed it all. “I had fun doing both types of roles,” he told reporters in 2016. “Both are good. One day you laugh and the next day you cry, that’s how it is.”