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Marcel Marceau, who put the art of mime on the world stage and brought poetry to silence, has died, his former assistant said Sunday. He was 84.
Marceau died Saturday in Paris, French media reported. Former assistant Emmanuel Vacca announced the death on France-Info radio, but gave no details about the cause.
Wearing white face paint, soft shoes and a battered hat topped with a red flower, Marceau, notably through his famed character Bip, played the entire range of human emotions onstage for more than 50 years, never uttering a word. Offstage, he was famously chatty.
"Never get a mime talking. He won't stop," he once said.
Marceau's lithe gestures and pliant facial expressions gave life to characters from a peevish waiter to a lion tamer to an old woman knitting.
A French Jew who, unlike his father, escaped deportation to a concentration camp during World War II, Marceau worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children, and later used the memories of his own life to feed his art.
His biggest inspiration was Charlie Chaplin. Marceau, in turn, inspired countless young performers - Michael Jackson borrowed his famous "moonwalk" from a Marceau sketch, "Walking Against the Wind." In one of his most poignant and philosophical acts, "Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death," Marceau wordlessly showed the passing of an entire life in just minutes.
He took his art to stages across the world.
"France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors," said a statement by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Marceau as "the master" with the rare gift of "being able to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language."
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France. His father, Charles, a kosher butcher who sang baritone, introduced his son to the world of music and theater at an early age. The boy adored the silent film stars of the era: Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx brothers.
When the Germans marched into eastern France, he and his family were given just hours to pack their bags. He fled to southwest France and changed his last name to Marceau, taking the name of a famous French revolution general, to hide his Jewish origins.
With his brother Alain, Marceau became active in the French Resistance. He altered children's identity cards, changing their birth dates to trick the Germans into thinking they were too young to be deported. In 1943 he helped smuggle some 70 French Jewish children to Switzerland.
Because he spoke English, he was recruited to be a liaison officer with Gen. George S. Patton's army.
In 1944, Marceau's father was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died.
Later, he reflected on his father's death: "Yes, I cried for him." But he also thought of all the others killed: "Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug," he told reporters in 2000. "That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another."
When Paris was liberated, Marceau's life as a performer began. He enrolled in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art, studying with the renowned mime Etienne Decroux.
On a tiny stage at the Theatre de Poche, a smoke-filled Left Bank cabaret, he sought to perfect the style of mime that would become his trademark.
Bip - Marceau's on-stage persona - was born.
Marceau once said that Bip was his alter ego, a sad-faced double whose eyes lit up with childlike wonder as he discovered the world. Bip was a direct descendant of the 19th century harlequin, but his clownish gestures, Marceau said, were inspired by Chaplin and Keaton.
Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, "alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty." Dressed in a white sailor suit, a top hat - a red rose perched on top - Bip chased butterflies and flirted at cocktail parties. He went to war and ran a matrimonial service.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2002, Marceau said that one of his sketches, "Bip Remembers." was based directly on his memories of returning to Strasbourg after the war: "I go back in memory to my childhood home, how my father took me on a carousel. I show life and death in war. I show Hitler and waves of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns."
But he added "Bip is not a Jewish character. I respect our history and suffering, and I am sure that the fact I was born a Jew and was in the underground has had an influence. But in my art, I belong to the world, beyond religion, to Jews, Christians and even Muslims." .
Marceau performed in Israel several times; in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 1995, the last time he appeared in Israel, Marceau recalled that the first time he performed here was when his career was just starting back in 1949.
"I still remember I played 35 performances to full houses. And when I came back in 1950, 1951 and 1955, my career in the US was just taking off. And then in 1959, David Ben-Gurion came to see the show."
In 1971 he brought his then 90-year old mother to visit relatives in Rehovot. He later expressed his regret to the Post at not returning after that for more than two decades. "I was always on long tours, and every time we wanted to go here it just didn't work," he said. "But now the moment has definitely arrived to come here and be part of the process of bringing love and peace to your land."
Marceau counted several Israelis among his students, including the late Shaike Ophir and Hanoch Rosanne.
"I have had an international school of mime in Paris since '78, with students from all over the world - including Israel, Algeria and Morocco," he told the Post. "And today there are also many mime artists in the world. But the major problems is not the lack of artists, but a lack of a good school of mime. When many street mimes imitated me they focused just on movement but not the feeling. Chaplin is not just an acrobat, he also has a deep soul. Mime is not just mechanics."
In one famous sketch, "Public Garden," Marceau played all the characters in a park, from little boys playing ball to old women with knitting needles.
In 1949 Marceau's newly formed mime troupe was the only one of its kind in Europe. But it was only after a hugely successful tour across the United States in the mid-1950s that Marceau received the acclaim that would make him an international star.
Single-handedly, Marceau revived the art of mime.
"I have a feeling that I did for mime what (Andres) Segovia did for the guitar, what (Pablo) Casals did for the cello," he once told The Associated Press in an interview.
In the past decades, he took Bip from Mexico to China to Australia. He also made film appearances. The most famous was Mel Brooks's Silent Movie - in which he had the only line of dialogue: "Non!" As he aged, Marceau kept performing, never losing the agility that made him famous. On top of his Legion of Honor and his countless honorary degrees, he was invited to be a United Nations goodwill ambassador for a 2002 conference on aging.
"If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on," he told the AP in an interview in 2003. "You have to keep working."
Marceau was married three times and had four children. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.