MONTREAL, NOV. 1 -- Former Quebec premier Rene Levesque, a leader in the province's fight to secede from Canada, died tonight following a heart attack. He was 65.

Levesque reportedly suffered a heart attack around 9 p.m. while entertaining guests in his home. Attempts by ambulance technicians and doctors at the Montreal General Hospital to revive him were unsuccessful, police said.

Hospital spokesman Michael Churchill-Smith said Levesque was brought into the hospital's emergency room at 9:45 p.m. and was pronounced dead 50 minutes later.

Levesque was premier of Quebec from 1976 to 1985. A one-time Cabinet minister under Liberal premier Jean Lesage, Levesque broke away and formed his own movement in 1967, which became the Parti Quebecois a year later. The party advocated the secession of Quebec from the rest of Canada.

At the root of the movement was the belief that without autonomy, French culture in Quebec would not survive. Eighty-two percent of people in Quebec are French speakers.

It was under Levesque's leadership that a 1980 referendum was held on the issue. Quebec voters, however, rejected the option of sovereignty-association by a vote of 60-to-40 percent. Levesque resigned as head of the party in 1985, under pressure from members of his own party, which had fallen to an all-time low in popularity. Levesque's popularity, however, remained high.

In Ottawa, Bruce Phillips, a spokesman for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, said the prime minister was shocked and saddened by Levesque's death.

"While he and the premier had very different views about the kind of Canada they wanted, he admired Rene Levesque's profound respect for democracy and never doubted that he was a great champion of Quebec's interests," Phillips said.

New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent said through a spokesman, "Rene Levesque was one of the most influential Canadians of his time.

"His deeply-felt struggle to ensure that the language of the French-speaking majority of Quebec justifiably became the dominant language in all aspects of Quebec life was his enduring contribution to Quebec and to Canada," he said.

Before entering politics in 1960, Levesque had worked as a newspaper and broadcast journalist. He grew up on Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, a member of a French family in a largely English-speaking town.

His first job was at a local radio station translating English news dispatches into French and reading them on the air.

Toward the end of World War II, Levesque dropped out of law school and became a French-language broadcaster for the U.S. Office of War Information, traveling with the American forces through Europe.

Levesque spent his first year out of politics writing his memoirs. This year, Levesque returned to work as a broadcast journalist in Quebec, covering provincial politics.

His last public appearance was Friday night, when he showed up at a photo opportunity before a fund-raising literary dinner.

Levesque is survived by his second wife, the former Corinne Cote, his former appointments secretary whom he married in a secret ceremony April 13, 1979, after divorcing his first wife, Louise L'Heureux, earlier that year.

He had three children by his first marriage, Pierre, Claude and Suzanne.