Born in Strasbourg, France in 1923, Marcel Mangel had a long way to go before he became the foremost mime artist in the world. He came from a Jewish family that had an artistic lean based on the many dancers and musicians that it produced. It wasn't until he was 15 that Marcel changed his last name to Marceau (after a famous French general), to hide his Jewish origins when France entered WWII. Both Marceau and his brother Alain worked in the French underground, often risking their lives to help Jews escape their occupied homeland. Young Marcel went so far as to portray a Boy Scout director to lead hundreds of young Jewish children on "hikes" in the Alps, helping them flee into Switzerland. By 1944, Marceau's father was deported to Auschwitz (where he died), and Marceau and his brother departed to Paris, where they felt safe. It was here that Marceau resumed his earlier dreams of being an actor, inspired by silent film greats like Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. But, despite his best efforts, he was again sidetracked by WWII when he was asked to be a liaison officer with Patton's army, because his English was so good. Finally in 1946, he enrolled in the renowned Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art where he studied under Etienne Decroux, who introduced him to the art form of mime. Soon Marceau developed his own distinct style of mine, which was easily accessible to a mass audience. As his popularity grew, he created what he called "mimodramas" which led quickly to what is now known as modern mime. In 1947, Marceau developed a reoccurring character he called Bip. Modeled after his movie hero Chaplin's Little Tramp, Bip was the underdog, a melancholy sad sack dressed in a striped shirt, white sailor pants, and a top hat with a single red flower sprouting from the lid, that became his signature alter ego. Over the next ten years Marceau appeared on stage, screen, and television, making his mark in all art forms, although his live performance will be what he is best remembered for; it was in the 1950s that Americans everywhere were awakened to the magic of mime because of his appearances on television. While he did not appear in a multitude of films, Marceau did use his art to the fullest advantage. In First Class, he played 17 different roles; in Shanks he played the title character who is a deaf-mute puppeteer, allowing him to showcase his talent. He also appeared in Barbarella as Professor Ping, and was the only one with a speaking part in the Mel Brooks comedy Silent Movie ("Non!"). Marceau continued to appear in various film projects throughout his later life, but the majority of those years he spent teaching his craft to others. After officially retiring from stage activity in 2005, Marceau died of undisclosed causes at age 84, in September 2007.
Biography by Rovi
- As a member of the French Resistance movement during World War II, forged documents to help Jewish men avoid concentration camps and helped transport Jewish children to safety in Switzerland.
- Adopted the name Marceau after a famous French general.
- Fought in World War II as a member of the Free French Forces, which he joined in 1944.
- His father died at Auschwitz in 1944.
- Uttered the only word, "non," in Mel Brooks' 1976 comedy Silent Movie.
- A member of France's Legion of Honor and National Order of Merit, and a United Nations goodwill ambassador.
- Performed in more than 80 countries.
- Established an international mime school in Paris.
- Was an inspiration for Michael Jackson's famous "moonwalk" dance step; Jackson developed the move after seeing Marceau's "walking against the wind" sketch.