Pierre Étaix, a French clown and filmmaker whose stylish acrobatics and melancholy manner made him an Academy Award-winning master of slapstick comedy, died Oct. 14 in Paris. He was 87.
The cause was complications of an intestinal infection, his wife, Odile Étaix, told the Agence France-Presse.
Although Mr. Étaix directed and starred in only five feature films and several shorts — including “Heureux Anniversaire” (“Happy Anniversary”), which won the Oscar for best live-action short in 1963 — he was considered one of the most brilliant physical comedians of the past half-century.
“With and without dialogue, he charted simple stories and routines with a practical elegance rarely seen since the silent era,” the film critic Nicolas Rapold wrote in 2012 in the New York Times.
A trained clown who performed in circuses and cabarets, Mr. Étaix was supporting himself as an illustrator when he met filmmaker Jacques Tati in 1954. The actor-director was so impressed with Mr. Étaix’s drawings that he offered him an apprenticeship on the set of his 1958 comedy “Mon Oncle,” for which Mr. Étaix drew storyboards, developed gags and designed the film’s distinctive, brightly colored poster.
He made his directing debut with the 10-minute short “Rupture” (1961), a nearly wordless comedy about a jilted lover — played by Mr. Étaix — who attempts to respond to his girlfriend’s perfumed breakup letter. The film and its follow-up, “Happy Anniversary,” about a husband’s increasingly frantic preparations for a dinner with his wife, were co-directed by novelist Jean-Claude Carrière, whom Mr. Étaix met through Tati.
Carrière later became a favorite collaborator of director Luis Buñuel and co-wrote Mr. Étaix’s first features: “Le Soupirant” (“The Suitor,” 1963), “Yoyo” (1965), “Tant qu’on a la Santé” (“As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” 1966) and “Le Grand Amour” (1969).
In “Yoyo,” one of Mr. Étaix’s most popular works, he played the dual roles of an unhappy millionaire and the millionaire’s son, who becomes a popular clown named Yoyo.
“Le Grand Amour,” about a married factory owner who pines for his new secretary, featured one of Mr. Étaix’s most memorable gags: a dream scene in which country roads are filled not with cars but with floating beds, with each bed-driver comfortably dressed in nightclothes.
Mr. Étaix’s film career collapsed after the release of “Pays de Cocagne” (“Land of Milk and Honey,” 1971), a satirical documentary about French consumerism following that country’s May 1968 demonstrations. After the film was scorned by critics and audiences, Mr. Étaix found it difficult to obtain new producers for his work and returned to the stage.
A restrictive early contract kept his films out of view until 2009, when a petition signed by tens of thousands of fans and filmmakers such as Jerry Lewis, Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen helped prompt their rerelease at festivals and in theaters.
The petition included a note from Lewis, who had cast Mr. Étaix in his unreleased film “The Day the Clown Cried.” “Twice in my life,” Lewis wrote, “I understood what genius meant: the first time when I looked up the definition in a dictionary, and the second time when I met Pierre Étaix.”
Pierre Étaix (pronounced ay-TEX) was born in Roanne, in France’s Loire region, on Dec. 23, 1928. His father was a merchant and his mother a homemaker.
Captivated by clowns and the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Mr. Étaix practiced magic tricks and music, learning to play the concertina, mandolin, saxophone and trumpet. He made his debut as a clown at 16, taking the name Paro, according to a remembrance by Odile Étaix and Richard Mowe, director of French Film Festival U.K.
Mr. Étaix had several small roles outside his own films, beginning with a part as a thief’s accomplice in Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” (1959).
He married the clown and actress Annie Fratellini after her appearance in “Le Grand Amour,” and with her founded the National Circus School in France in the early 1970s. She died in 1997.
Survivors include his second wife, the former Odile Crépin; and a son from his first marriage, Marc Étaix.
Mr. Étaix made a brief return to film in the 1980s, directing the television film adaptation of his play “L’Age de Monsieur est Avancé” (1987) and “J’écris dans l’Espace” (1989), which used an early form of 3D effects, but he focused mainly on his stage shows.
“The simplest situations are the funniest,” he said in 2010, explaining his comic method during a screening of his films in Montreal. “The more you go looking for something exceptional, the more you get sidetracked to nowhere.”