Jean Rochefort - living life at the gallop

Veteran actor and Don Quixote star dies at 87.

by Richard Mowe

In typical dandy-esque pose: Jean Rochefort who, besides acting, harboured a life-long passion for equestrian pursuits.
In typical dandy-esque pose: Jean Rochefort who, besides acting, harboured a life-long passion for equestrian pursuits. Photo: Unifrance
Veteran French actor Jean Rochefort who only two years ago with his last screen appearance in Floride by Philippe Le Guay, received an honorary César (French Oscar), has died in Paris at the age of 87.

In Floride, he played an octogenarian former industrialist who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. In one interview about the film in which she shared the bill with Sandrine Kiberlain, he declared that he could sense his own demise on the horizon. “There are moments when I would be happy for it to happen … the body asks for it and some times the head as well. But I don’t want to cause sorrow to others,” he was quoted as saying.

In another quote on the subject he opined: “I don’t want to snuff it right away because still I have loads of things I want to do.” Since last year he had not been in public as the illness took its toll.

Rochefort, who sported a trademark moustache, was born in Paris on April 29, 1930. He was part of a considerable line of French actors such as Jean-Pierre Marielle, Claude Rich, Pierre Vernier, Michel Beaune and Jean-Paul Belmondo who were known as “la Bande du conservatoire” otherwise “the gang from the Conservatoire [of drama].” They were all schooled by teachers from the Comedie Française with a formal training but sought to bring a breath of fresh air and touch of modernity to what they considered was a rather archaic institution with rigid traditions.

During the Second World War he was growing up as a teenager in Vichy where he witnessed at first hand brutal events involving the SS that had a lasting impact on his vision of the world. After a first job as a clerk in the Bank of France followed by drama lessons in Nantes, he moved to Paris at 19 years old to acting school at L’Ecole de la Rue Blanche followed by the Conservatoire. He began his acting career in the theatre and despite his fame on screen, he always returned to the boards for playwrights as varied as Harold Pinter, Jean Giraudoux, Georges Feydeau, Arthur Miller and Molière.

The group of students remained close both professionally and privately long after they had graduated. He had an enduring friendship with the late Phlippe Noiret.

Jean Rochefort saddled up as Don Quixote on location in Spain with Terry Gilliam
Jean Rochefort saddled up as Don Quixote on location in Spain with Terry Gilliam Photo: Unifrance
His first big cinema breakthrough was in Phlippe de Broca’s caper Cartouche in 1962 with his friend from the Conservatoire Jean-Paul Belmondo alongside Claudia Cardinale. It was on this film that he began his long-standing passion for equestrian delights. He became an accomplished rider and passed his skills to his children. In another comedic success Pardon Mon Affaire (Un éléphant ça trompe énormément) (1976) by Yves Robert he had great fun pretending that he could not ride a horse.

Rochefort seemed to be in all the hit comedies of the Sixties such as The Tall Man With One Black Shoe (Le Grand Blond avec Une chaussure noire) and its sequel The Return Of The Tall Blond Man (Le Retour de grand blond), but he was also at home in more dramatic roles such as Bertrand Tavernier’s The Watchmaker Of St Paul (L’Horloger de Saint-Paul) in 1973 and in Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser's Husband (Le Mari de la coiffeuse) (1990), Tandem, Ridicule (1996) and L’Homme du train (2002). His roll call of seminal directors included Claude Chabrol, Luis Buñuel, Edouard Molinaro and Michel Audiard.

In 2000, Terry Gilliam came calling with the role of Don Quixote for his famously ill-fated production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in which he was to appear with Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. The film was delayed when Rochefort had to go back to Paris from Spain with a prostate problem and this production never managed to get off the ground after a series of mishaps which were captured in the documentary Lost In La Mancha. Earlier this year, it has been reported that Gilliam finally has completed the project with Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver and Stellan Skarsgard heading the cast and a release date set for May next year (2018).

Rochefort was also much sought after because of his distinctive tones for dubbing work and gave his voice to such animation films as Jack And The Cuckoo-Clock Heart (Jack et la mécanique du cœur) by Mathias Malzieu and Stéphane Berla (2013), and April And The Extraordinary World (Avril et le monde truquéde) from Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares (2015). He was a household face on television with six seasons, from 1995 to 2001, as police commissioner Venturi in Internal Affairs (Les bœufs-carottes), and appeared in The Count Of Monte-Cristo for Josée Dayan.

Rochefort, with this dandy-esque allure was popular with women. In 1960, he married Alexandra Moscwa with whom he had two children. They divorced after 20 years. Subsequently, he was involved with director and actress Nicole Garcia for seven years, with whom he had a son Pierre (also an actor). He was latterly wed to architect Françoise Vidal, with whom he shared his equestrian passion. They had two children born at the start of the 1990s.

For most of his life, Rochefort lived in rural retreat with his beloved horses rather than frequenting the bright lights of Paris, although on medical advice he returned to the city at the age of 80, partly because he suffered from clinical depressions and was advised not to be left on his own.

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