Universally considered the world's greatest contemporary mime artist, Marcel Marceau
was a true legend.
Born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in the French town of Strasbourg, on the French-German border, Marceau was inspired as a young child by the great stars of silent film. The comic brilliance of Buster
Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, among others, fascinated him, but it was Charlie Chaplin that made the biggest and most lasting impression. After his father took him to see
City Lights, Marceau began to imitate Chaplin immediately. The young Marceau would perform his imitations of Chaplin and other characters for the neighborhood children, and his entertaining became very popular. (Ironically, in spite of the many Hollywood stars Marceau would later come to know personally, he would meet Chaplin only once, and only by chance, at the Orly airport outside Paris in 1967, upon his return from shooting a film in Rome.)
It was as a young man when Marcel took Marceau as his new surname. He and his older brother Alain had moved to Limoges early into World War II, and worked for the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. The name change helped hide his true identity. While in
Limoges, Marceau also attended school, where he studied decorative art.
When his brother became wanted by the Gestapo, it was too dangerous for Marceau to remain in
Limoges, and so he moved to Paris. He enrolled as a student of Charles
Dullin, the great French actor-director-theoretician, at Dullin's School of Dramatic Art at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. It was there where he began to study mime under Etienne Decroux, who would later become known as "the father of modern mime."
When France was liberated in 1944, Marceau enlisted in the French Army. He served alongside American soldiers in Germany from January to April 1945, when the war in Europe ended, and remained in service there until May 1946.
Marceau returned to France in 1946, when he performed in Dullin's troupe, and he also returned to his mime studies with Decroux. As he was one of Decroux's most talented students, Marceau was invited to play the role of Arlequin (Harlequin) in the
Renault-Barrault Company's production of Baptiste, a full-length mime play, or
mimodrame, based on the character that Jean-Louis Barrault had played in the enormously successful film
Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise),
which itself was partially based on the life of Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the greatest French mime of the 19th century. Marceau's performance received acclaim, and he was encouraged to create his own mime work. That same year he created the mimodrame
Praxitèle et le poisson d'or (Praxitele and the Golden Fish) at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.
The following year, in 1947, Marceau introduced Bip, the character that would become his alter-ego, as the Little Tramp was to Chaplin. He first performed Bip at the Théâtre de Poche in Paris, with
Bip et la fille des rues (Bip and the Girl of the Streets) and Bip et la parapluie (Bip and the Umbrella).
Marceau's and Decroux's views of mime differed, and they had a falling out in 1948. That same year Marceau, now his own artist, won the Deburau Prize for his mimodrame
Mort avant l'aube (Death Before Dawn). The following year he created the first Compagnie Marceau and began his first international tours in Europe with his troupe.
Technically, Marceau's first opportunity to perform for an American audience had been when he performed for 3000 of General George S. Patton's U.S. troops in Germany during Marceau's tour of duty after the war. In 1955, however, came his first theatrical performances in the United States. He performed a one-man show composed of short
Bip mimes and style pantomimes in New York, first at the Phoenix Theatre, then in a sold-out run on Broadway at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre. The response was astounding, and he followed New York with a six-month U.S. tour.
The name Marcel Marceau started to become a household name as he appeared on American television. He made guest appearances on such shows as
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, Laugh-In, The Dinah Shore Show, and
The Ed Sullivan Show, and appeared three times in concerts with Red Skelton. He won a 1956 Emmy award for his guest appearance on
Max Liebman Presents - The Maurice Chevalier Show. His later television accomplishments included the one-hour special
Meet Marcel Marceau (1965), and
Scrooge (for the BBC, 1973), in which he played all the roles. Marceau also appeared in films, both of his mime work, such as
Un Jardin Public (The Public Garden, 1955) and The Art of Silence
(1975), and feature films such as Shanks (1973), Barbarella (1968),
First Class (1970, in which he played 17 roles), and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie
(1976), in which he was the only actor to speak.
Throughout the 1950's and 1960's Marceau continued international tours that took him literally all over the world. During the latter decade he took on new artistic
roles—those of painter, teacher, and author. Influenced by artists like Marc Chagall and William Blake, Marceau's
drawings and paintings reflect his sense of the fantasy, poetry, complexity, and profoundness of life. Some of his paintings illustrate the pages of
The Story of Bip, one of several children's books he has written.
In 1969, Marceau founded the Ecole Internationale de Mime Marcel Marceau, the first version of his school, maintained under the direction of his longtime associate Pierre
Verry. Later, in 1978, with the financial support of the city of Paris, he opened the Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau, a three-year, multi-discipline program that offered the skills he felt were essential to the mime
actor—instruction in his own mime technique, acting, ballet, fencing, acrobatics, and Corporeal Mime, the technique created by his master of years ago, Etienne Decroux. In the 1980s and 1990s, Marceau also taught summer seminars in Italy and the United States, and continued to offer occasional workshops in various cities, some in cooperation with other mime programs.
Since he began touring internationally in the 1950's, Marceau worked almost without pause. He toured every year since then, and continued to teach, paint, write, and create. The demands of this lifestyle caught up with him only once, in 1985, when a perforated ulcer necessitated an emergency return to France from the
U.S.S.R., where he was touring, followed by a six-month recovery. He returned to touring in 1986, and
continued until 2005.
Marceau's achievements as an artist and his contribution to the renewed popularity of the art of mime earned him not only a loyal worldwide audience, but also much formal recognition. He received the highest civilian honors of his native France, named Officier de la Légion
d'Honneur, Officier du Mérite, and Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, among others. He was inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters of Berlin in 1954, and into the French Académie des Beaux Arts in 1993. Marceau received honorary doctorates from major universities,
was received by world leaders, and was designated a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations.
After a career that spanned nearly sixty years, Marcel Marceau passed away on
September 22, 2007 at the age of 84. For many, he will always be remembered as the world's
* Marcel Marceau read the first draft of the
preceding biography, and this final version reflects his corrections to that
Photo courtesy of The
Marcel Marceau Foundation for the Advancement of the Art of Mime, Inc.
Used here by permission.