Actor Michael Sarrazin dies at 70
By Adam Bernstein,
Michael Sarrazin, a tall, lanky, doe-eyed actor who projected a soulful appeal in films of the 1960s and 1970s, memorably as the farm boy who becomes the dancing partner of Jane Fonda in the acclaimed film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” died April 17 at a hospital in Montreal. He was 70 and had cancer.
The Canadian-born Sarrazin (pronounced SARA-zin) began his acting career as a teenager and was a veteran of stage and television before signing a contract in 1966 with Universal studios.
He arrived in Hollywood with a rebellious self-confidence. At the time, he told the Toronto Star that he considered himself a “tramp actor.”
“I don’t want a zillion dollars,” he said in the interview. “I don’t want to be a carbon-copy star. All I want is to be me, Michael Sarrazin, maybe the best damned actor in the world. Take me on my own terms, or I’ll cut out.”
He played an apprentice to con man George C. Scott in “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967); a surf bum in “The Sweet Ride” (1968) opposite his longtime girlfriend Jacqueline Bisset; and a prodigal son in “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1970), an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s book about loggers.
His career peaked in 1969 when he played a drifter who joins a Depression-era dance marathon in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
The film was widely viewed as a reflection of a corrupt modern society, with its rigged finish and its masochistic master of ceremonies declaring, “There can only be one winner, folks, but isn’t that the American way?”
His co-stars included Fonda and Susannah York, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, and Gig Young, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing the smarmy emcee. Director Sydney Pollack also was nominated for an Oscar.
Mr. Sarrazin was overlooked for a nomination — in part, he said, because Pollack edited out his dramatic six-minute monologue that explains his mercy killing of Fonda’s character.
Behind the scenes, the production was intense, he told the Star. “We stayed in character. Pollack said we should work until signs of exhaustion. Fights would break out among the men, women started crying. I’d get into terrible fights with Bruce Dern [who played another dancer]. The elbows would start flying.”
Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin was born May 22, 1940, in Quebec City and grew up in Montreal, where his father practiced law. He began acting while attending a Jesuit high school. He appeared in Canadian Broadcasting Corp. dramas before signing a contract with Universal Studios that he later likened to being “virtually indentured” for $300 a week.
“My first TV feature was with Bobby Darin,” he told the Star in 1994. “It was ‘Gunfight at Ablilene,’ done in 14 days. Leslie Nielsen was the bad guy. No one could ride or shoot. I was just a kid, and Bobby would sit and play piano all day.”
After “They Shoot Horses,” Mr. Sarrazin found himself in conflict with Universal. The studio, he said, would not make concessions that would allow him to play the street hustler in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). That role made Jon Voight a star.
Mr. Sarrazin appeared in underwhelming fare in the ’70s. He was Barbra Streisand’s taxi-driving husband in the tepid comedy “For Pete’s Sake” (1974) and a man possessed in the paranormal thriller “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” (1975).
He slummed in risible dramas such as “The Seduction” (1982), in which he was the boyfriend of stalking victim Morgan Fairchild, and “Lipstick” (1987), in which he played a creepy policy commissioner.
Mr. Sarrazin’s later career focused on Canadian film and TV productions. He won favorable critical attention with his portrayal of a sleazy lounge lizard named Romeo Laflamme in the comedy “La Florida” (1993), which was co-written and produced by his brother Pierre.
Besides his brother, survivors include two daughters from a relationship; and a sister.
Mr. Sarrazin was reserved about disclosing details of his personal life. But glimpses reveal a resonant off-screen charisma.
“When I first met him, I thought he was a strange guy, quiet and moody,” Bisset once told the New York Times. “There was something kind of animal about him — he sort of sniffs around. He’s kind of like a wiry alley cat.”