Jacques Perrin, a charming and soft-spoken veteran French actor – he didn’t smolder as much as twinkle – who rose from starring in musical and dramatic films to directing and producing, notably Costa-Gavras’ political thrillers and his poetic documentaries about the natural world, who died April 21 in Paris. He was 80 years old.
His son, Mathieu Simonet, confirmed the death. No cause was given.
Mr. Perrin was a lonely, gallant teenager in the Italian melodrama “Girl With a Suitcase” (1961), in which he attempts to save a depressed beauty played by Claudia Cardinale who has been abandoned by her thuggish older brother.
He was a dreamy sailor in Jacques Demy’s “Les Jeunes Filles de Rochefort,” a giddy, candy-colored 1967 French musical (now considered a camp classic) that starred Catherine Deneuve and her sister, Françoise Dorléac, as as a pair of twins looking for love and discovery with Mr. Perrin, hair bleached like straw (and looking more like a young David Hockney) and Gene Kelly. (Ms. Dorléac died in a car accident shortly after the film was shot.)
That same year, Mr. Perrin and Natalie Wood appeared as chaste young lovers whom the elders goad them on into “All the Other Girls Do”, an Italian farce.
Mr. Perrin then played an opportunistic photojournalist who discovers his conscience in “Z”, a 1969 political thriller from Costa-Gavras, the Greek-born director. Mr. Perrin also produced the film, a feat of “accounting acrobatics”, as he put it, since no one else would touch the film. (This is the actual assassination of a Greek politician.) AbsolutelyMr. Perrin has appeared in about 100 films and produced nearly 40.
To American audiences, however, he was best known for his role in “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). He played Salvatore, a world-weary director who was once a wide-eyed 8-year-old nicknamed Toto. In flashbacks, Toto is seen in the grip of the films he watches in a theater in a small post-war Sicilian village and under the wing of father figure Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the philosophical projectionist who cuts out the naughty pieces – the kissing screen – on the orders of the village priest.
The final scene was a humdinger: Mr. Perrin, weeping beautifully in a darkened theater, once again in a grip. Critics were dry-eyed, but audiences weren’t, and it was a smash hit that won all sorts of accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a Golden Globe.
Mr. Perrin played a similar role in “The Chorus” (2004), which he also produced, about orphaned boys at a spooky boarding school who are rescued by a singing teacher who helps them form a choir. It too was a hit, at least in France, inspiring a frenzy of amateur singing, just as “High School Musical” would do a few years later in the United States. Mr Perrin, speaking to The New York Times, described ‘The Chorus’ as “a fragile and precious film about childhood memories”.
Other films were less successful. He produced and starred in “The Roaring Forties,” a 1982 drama about a sailor on a nonstop solo race around the world, based on the real-life adventures of Donald Crowhurst, a British sailor who disappeared while he was attempting a solo world tour in 1969. Although Julie Christie, an otherwise reliable box office draw, was his co-star, the film did so poorly – a “shipwreck”, as he put it. Le Monde – that it took Mr. Perrin 10 years to repay the debt he had accumulated. while doing it.
“He worked on what interested him,” said Mr. Simonet, who is also an actor, director and producer, and who has often collaborated with his father, during a telephone interview. “His goal was not to make blockbusters, although some of his films became blockbusters. He bet his life all the time. He followed his dreams, without limit.
Jacques André Simonet was born on July 13, 1941 in Paris. His father, Alexandre Simonet, was the manager of The Comedie Francaise, the centuries-old Parisian theater run by the state; his mother, Marie Perrin, was an actress and Jacques took her surname as his stage name. He left school at 15 and worked as a grocery clerk before studying at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.
Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Valentine Perrinwho also has product movies; their sons, Maxence and Lancelot; and a sister, Janine Baisadouli. His first marriage, to Chantal Bouillaut, ended in divorce.
Mr. Perrin, an ardent environmentalist, makes hypnotic movies on the natural world. “Microcosmos” (1996), is all about insects. “Oceans” (2009) dives underwater. “Winged Migration” (2001) takes flight as it follows a year in the life of migrating birds, such as cranes, storks and geese, as they travel thousands of miles across 40 countries and seven continents. In The Times, Stephen Holden called it a “scenic, bird’s-eye world tour”.
“Winged Migration” was made under extraordinary circumstances over three years, with 14 filmmakers flying with the birds in purpose-built ultralight aircraft. Balloons, remote-controlled gliders and other devices were also used to film among the birds, half of which were trained at Mr Perrin’s home in Normandy.
These birds have been displayed and printed with the aircraft as chicks – like Konrad Lorenz, the once famous Austrian animal zoologist and ornithologist, chicks will attach themselves to the first large moving object they encounter – so that Once they take flight, crews could accompany them, like members of the herd.
“Birds don’t normally fly alongside airplanes, nor can they be trained like circus animals,” Patricia Thomson wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 2003. “So Perrin began what would become the biggest printing project ever. More than 1,000 eggs – representing 25 species – were reared by ornithologists and students at a base in Normandy where Perrin also leased an airfield. During incubation and early in life, the chicks were exposed to engine noise and human voice, then trained to follow the pilot – first on foot, then in the air. These birds would be the main actors, the heroes of flight. The rest of the footage would involve thousands of wild birds, filmed in their natural environment.
Mr. Perrin wanted moviegoers to feel like the birds and to feel, as Mr. Simonet said, that they could reach out and touch them.
Ultralight planes were not easy to fly, Mr Perrin told James Gorman of The Times. Two crashed, leaving the pilot and cameraman slightly injured; no winged creatures were harmed.
“Sometimes at 10,000 feet a bird would land on a cinematographer’s lap and have to be pushed with one hand while he held a heavy 35mm camera in the other,” Mr. Gorman. “One rule was absolute: no filmmaker with vertigo need apply.”
The film’s science consultants were so moved by the experience of flying with the herds that when they landed, many burst into tears.
“They don’t say such splendid words,” Mr. Perrin told Mr. Gorman. “They are crying.”