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New Wave icon and French ‘national treasure’ Jean-Paul Belmondo dies at 88

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Jean-Paul Belmondo, a legend of French cinema, has died at the age of 88, his lawyer confirmed on Monday.

The actor died at his home in Paris, his lawyer Michel Godest said.

“He had been very tired for some time. He died quietly,” he said.

Belmondo burst onto the silver screen in the 1950s, but made his name during the next decade’s New Wave of titles including “Breathless” and “The Man from Rio”.

Over his 50-year career, Bébel, as he is known in France, appeared in 80 movies, starring in both popular and auteur films and working under a variety of major French directors, from Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard to Claude Lelouch.

Born in April 1933 to a renowned “pied-noir” sculptor father and painter mother, Belmondo grew up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent Parisian suburb. He spent his childhood in elite schools but was a poor student, preferring sports.

At 15 he started an amateur boxing career but was struck by tuberculosis and forced into a sabbatical.

He then set his sights on acting. He failed twice to get into the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Arts but eventually got a spot in 1952.

One of his teachers, Pierre Dux, famously told him that his career as a leading man was doomed because of his looks. People would burst into laughter if they saw an actress in Belmondo’s arms, Dux said, according to biographer Bertrand Tessier.

Still, he started his acting career in theatre and made his first real foray into films in 1958 for aspiring filmmaker Godard, alongside Alain Delon, who also debuted.

His unconventional looks – flattened nose, full lips and muscular frame – allowed him to play roles from thug to police officer, thief to priest, Cyrano de Bergerac to an unshakable secret agent. Belmondo was also a gifted athlete who often did his own stunts.

Belmondo was given his first important role by director Claude Sautet in “Classe tous risques” (Consider All Risks) in which he starred alongside Lino Ventura in 1960. The same year, Godard called Belmondo back to appear in “Breathless” – which became one of the breakthrough films of the French New Wave.

The movement, which included Truffaut, grouped filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s who abandoned traditional narrative techniques and were known for their mood of youthful iconoclasm.

Belmondo sometimes said he acted in Godard’s first film and would act in his last. But he didn’t link his name exclusively with one director and worked with most of France’s top filmmakers – and many of Europe’s most well-known actresses, including Jeanne Moreau and Sophia Loren.

Following the huge success of “Breathless,” Belmondo showed the vast array of his talent and his versatility in dramas (“Leon Morin, pretre”), arthouse movies (“Moderato Cantabile”) and blockbusters (“Cartouche”).

In “Un Singe en hiver,” a French classic directed by Henri Verneuil in 1962, Belmondo impressed the legendary Jean Gabin.

“You won’t tell me anymore: ‘If only I had a young Gabin.’ You have him!” Gabin told the director of Belmondo.

In Truffaut’s 1969 “Mississippi Mermaid,” Belmondo played a tobacco farmer and starred opposite Catherine Deneuve. Belmondo and Danish-born Anna Karina played a couple on the run in Godard’s 1965 “Pierrot le Fou.” Belmondo also won a Cesar – the French equivalent of an Oscar – for his role in Lelouch’s 1988 film “Itinerary of a Spoiled Child,” his final big success.

During the second half of his career, Belmondo opted for high-paying roles in commercially successful action films. He played a tough detective in “Cop or Hooligan,” and a World War II ace in “Champion of Champions.”

In the 1980s Belmondo returned to the stage, his first love, and won back the doubting critics. His comeback role was in a 1987 Paris production of “Kean,” about an actor famous for his uncontrollable temper and genius.

French President Emmanuel Macron led tributes to the late actor on Monday, writing on Twitter: “He will always be known as Le Magnifique [The Magnificient].”

“Jean-Paul Belmondo was a national treasure, full of panache and laughter, with a high voice and lithe body, a sublime hero and a familiar figure, a tireless daredevil and a magician of words. In him, we all found ourselves,” he added.

Alain Delon, who shared the screen with him multiple times, described himself as “devastated” by Belmondo’s death.

“I am completely devastated. I’m going to try to hang on so I don’t do the same thing in five hours… It would not be bad if we both left together. It’s a part of my life, we started together 60 years ago,” he said on CNews.

Belmondo, who had recovered from a stroke in 2001, is survived by three children, Florence, Paul, and Stella Eva Angelina. Another daughter, Patricia, died in 1994.

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