Though he is not quite the international icon that his erstwhile acting classmate and occasional co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo is, Jean Rochefort has been a fixture of French cinema for over four decades.
Deciding to pursue acting in his youth, Rochefort studied drama at the Paris Conservatory in the late '40s, at the same time as Belmondo. After military service briefly interrupted his career, Rochefort returned to Paris and began performing in cabaret and plays in the mid-'50s. He moved to films in the late '50s and early '60s, with small parts in several movies, including Une Balle dans le Canon (1958) and the swashbuckler Captain Fracasse (1960).
As the 1960s went on, Rochefort became famous for his work in crowd-pleasing genre movies. Among his prolific output, Rochefort played second banana to Belmondo in the adventure yarn Cartouche (1962), starred in the gangster movie Symphonie Pour un Massacre (1963) and the popular costume romance series Angelique Marquise des Anges (1964), Angelique et le Roi (1965), and Merveilleuse Angelique (1965). Working often with regular Belmondo director Philippe De Broca, Rochefort appeared in the pair's adventure hit Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine (1965) and top-lined De Broca's crime comedy (sans Belmondo), Le Diable par la Queue (1968). Despite appearing in such films as the Brigitte Bardot romance Two Weeks in September (1967) and the murder mystery Le Temps de Mourir (1970), by the early '70s, Rochefort was best known as a comedy star. His comic reputation was sealed internationally by frequent Rochefort director Yves Robert's The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (1972). An espionage farce featuring Rochefort as an enemy spy boss, The Tall Blond Man became a major hit and spawned a sequel (also starring Rochefort), The Return of the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (1974).
By the time the sequel appeared, however, Rochefort had begun to branch out beyond his signature frothy fare. He played the lead role in the superior spy docudrama Le Complot (1973) and appeared in international art cinema titan Luis Buñuel's black comedy The Phantom of Liberty (1974); Rochefort would get to act for one of the original French New Wave auteurs in Claude Chabrol's thriller Dirty Hands (1975). His work with another critic-turned-director, Bertrand Tavernier, brought Rochefort even more esteem. After playing one of the leads in Tavernier's atmospheric debut The Clockmaker (1974), he earned the Best Supporting Actor César for Tavernier's excellent historical biopic Que la Fête Commence (1975). Balancing his new artistic success with his customary lighter work, Rochefort scored another popular hit as a married man with adultery on his mind in the romantic comedy Pardon Mon Affaire (1976) and the sequel We Will All Meet in Paradise (1977). He won the Best Actor César that same year, though, for his performance as a dying Algerian War naval captain in the metaphysical drama Le Crabe-Tambour (1977). Briefly dipping into American-European co-productions, Rochefort next appeared in the black comedy Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), and American Graffiti (1973) scribes Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's ensemble comedy French Postcards (1979).
Still at the top of his game in the early '80s, Rochefort starred as an unwitting stooge in the assassination thriller Birgitt Haas Must Be Killed (1981) and played Simone Signoret's paraplegic brother in the astute, well-acted romantic drama Chère Inconnue (1981). His performance in the spy movie L'Indiscretion (1982) earned him the Best Actor prize at the Montreal Film Festival. Though his film output lessened in the mid-'80s, his career was reinvigorated when he began working with director Patrice Leconte in his Tandem (1987). The two scored international successes with The Hairdresser's Husband (1990), starring Rochefort as a man living out a childhood obsession, and the Oscar-nominated oddball period comedy Ridicule (1996). He also earned notice for his humorous appearances in Leconte's Tango (1993) and Les Grands Ducs (1996). Along with his Leconte films, Rochefort stayed busy throughout the 1990s, appearing in such movies as Robert Altman's all-star fashion fiasco Ready to Wear (1994), a TV miniseries of The Count of Monte Cristo (1998), and the biopic Rembrandt (1999). Rochefort was awarded an honorary César for career achievement in 1999.
Despite the career achievement laurels, Rochefort continued to work steadily into the next millennium. Along with lead roles in the Italian adventure comedy Honolulu Baby (2001) and the French swashbuckler Blanche (2002), Rochefort appeared in the internationally lauded satire The Closet (2001) as "closeted" straight man Daniel Auteuil's wary boss. Rochefort's most notable role of the new decade, though, was, as he himself put it, "the hero of a film that will never exist." Cast as the legendary eponymous dreamer in Terry Gilliam's big budget rendition of Miguel Cervantes's classic novel Don Quixote, Rochefort instead became a key player in the tale of the project's downfall documented in Lost In La Mancha (2003). With Gilliam's shoot already mired in difficulties, skilled horseman Rochefort's back injury became the final blow, leaving him physically unable to play the part and provoking the producers to pull the plug on Gilliam's time travel fantasy epic. The ill-fated film's second life via documentary was small consolation for Rochefort. Nevertheless, Rochefort found satisfaction in, and garnered praise for, his starring role in Patrice LeConte's dramatic comedy The Man on the Train (2002). Centering on the odd friendship between Rochefort's loquacious retired teacher and Johnny Hallyday's hardened gangster, The Man on the Train was well received on the festival circuit and earned positive notice when it was released in the U.S. in 2003.