Marcel Marceau; Resurrected, Personified the Art of Mime

Mr. Marceau, shown in 2003, performed for more than 60 years. He sold out theaters and appeared on television, winning two Emmys.
Mr. Marceau, shown in 2003, performed for more than 60 years. He sold out theaters and appeared on television, winning two Emmys. (By Laurent Emmanuel -- Associated Press)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

Marcel Marceau, 84, the world's greatest mime, who single-handedly revived the ancient art with his eloquent but wordless interpretations of complex emotions, died quietly in Paris on Sept. 22. No cause of death was reported.

For more than 60 years, Mr. Marceau performed on stages around the world, mesmerizing audiences with his impeccable comic sense and an unsurpassed talent for expressing beauty, conflict, despair and hope, using only his body to spark the audience's imagination.

"Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" he once asked.

As the character Bip, he tamed lions, chased butterflies, looked for a job, went to war and played a street musician. In other guises, he portrayed countless passersby in a public garden and created an elaborately detailed vignette with a manipulative defendant, a fiery prosecutor, an officious bailiff and a judge with a headache. One of his most poignant and popular scenes was a short bit in which Mr. Marceau seamlessly transformed himself from an embryo to an effervescent boy to a man in his maturity to an infirm old age to death, his corpse an echo of the embryo.

As flexible as an acrobat and with the discipline of a dancer, Mr. Marceau performed 300 times a year in his prime. Critics and audiences loved him almost from his start, although his big break came in 1955 when a tour in New York was repeatedly extended. He became a sensation, selling out theaters and appearing on the then-new medium of television, winning two Emmys. He had more than a dozen film credits, including "Barbarella" in 1968, but his most famous role was in the 1976 Mel Brooks film "Silent Movie." The famously silent Mr. Marceau had the sole speaking part. He said, "Non."

Mr. Marceau's style of pantomime, done in white face paint with story lines, proved so popular that it prompted two separate backlashes. In the arts, a "new mime" emerged, more psychologically probing with an emphasis on a wide range of movement arts, including dance, multimedia props and, sometimes, speech.

In popular culture, singer Michael Jackson borrowed his famous "moonwalk" from a Marceau sketch, "Walking Against the Wind." But so many less-talented mimes tried to imitate Mr. Marceau in public spaces, persisting in performing long after the audience gave up interest, that mime bashing became popular.

"As with sumo wrestling, opera or bagpipes, you either love mime or you don't," Leslie Crawford wrote in a 1999 article in the online magazine Salon. "The antipathy is often justified. . . . The trouble is that these watered-down Marceaus rarely get it right -- and in so doing have made mime a four-letter word."

Mr. Marceau himself insisted on the importance of training and started a school in Paris to teach the art.

His wordless performance was once delayed by the failure of a sound system. In 1980, at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, the music of Mozart, which accompanied his sketch "Angel," became inaudible. The performer bowed apologetically, the stage lights were dimmed and the curtain came down. Fifteen minutes later, the curtain rose again, and audience members learned what he meant when he told interviewers, "There is no such thing as silence."

Famously loquacious offstage, he spoke five languages in a soft, tenor voice.

He was born March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France, as Marcel Mangel. His family, which was Jewish, moved to Lille when he was young. Just 5 years old when he first saw the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, the young artist immediately began imitating birds, plants and people.

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