Once a key face of the French New Wave and one of the most famous actors in French film, Jean-Paul Belmondo strayed from his art cinema roots and morphed into a prolific, bankable action comedy star from the mid-'60s on.
The son of a sculptor, Belmondo spent his high school years as more of an athlete than an artist, but he decided that acting was his calling by the time he reached his twenties. After studying drama at the Paris Conservatory, Belmondo began his professional career on stage and spent the first half of the 1950s doing theater. Making his film debut in 1957, Belmondo appeared in several films in the last years of the decade, including Les Copains du Dimanche (1957) and his first co-starring role with fellow French idol Alain Delon in Sois Belle et Tais-Toi (1957).
Belmondo broke through as an international star, however, in Jean-Luc Godard's landmark first film, revisionist noir Breathless (1959). With his inimitable, roguish smile, unique looks, and witty yet moody performance as doomed thief/Humphrey Bogart fan Michel Poiccard, Belmondo perfectly embodied the cool youthful rebellion guiding Godard's trailblazing cinematic style, rendering Belmondo the Gallic James Dean and heir apparent to Michel Simon and Jean Gabin. Belmondo further displayed his range in Vittorio De Sica's Two Women (1960) opposite Oscar-winner Sophia Loren and as the titular priest in Jean-Pierre Melville's dark World War II drama Leon Morin, Prêtre (1961). After reteaming with Godard for the musical comedy A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Belmondo worked again with Melville in one of the director's signature gangster noir homages, playing the apparently double-crossing con Silien in Le Doulos (1962). Belmondo reached another artistic peak when he collaborated with Godard for the third time in the creatively complex romance-musical-gangster-road movie Pierrot le Fou (1965), but by then his career had already begun to move in another direction.
Though Belmondo's gallery of early-'60s charismatic losers like Silien and Poiccard made him synonymous with the new French cinema's edginess, he also established himself as a potentially more commercial star in such films as the period swashbuckler Cartouche (1962) and the romantic comedy La Chasse a L'Homme (1964). After his starring turn in Philippe De Broca's action comedy L'Homme de Rio (1964), Belmondo mostly focussed his energies on similar work, often produced by his own company, Cerito. Returning to his athletic roots, Belmondo became renowned for doing his own stunts as well as for his charming screen presence in such movies as the hit Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine (1965), the comic caper The Brain (1968), and his second film with Delon, Borsalino (1970). Along with the action and comedy vehicles in the late '60s and early '70s, Belmondo appeared in René Clement's all-star World War II epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), and Claude Lelouch's romance Love Is a Funny Thing (1969). Belmondo also continued his association with the remnants of the New Wave, starring in François Truffaut's l'amour fou drama Mississippi Mermaid (1969) opposite Catherine Deneuve, Louis Malle's crime comedy Le Voleur (1967), and Claude Chabrol's black comedy Docteur Popaul (1972).
As the 1970s and 1980s went on, Belmondo churned out more and more genre entertainment, including De Broca's James Bond parody Le Magnifique (1973), and crime thrillers Peur Sur la Ville (1975) and L'Alpagueur (1976). In 1978, Belmondo began a profitable association with director Georges Lautner in the hit comedy thriller Flic ou Voyou, continuing through Le Guignolo (1979), Le Professionnel (1981), the comedy Joyeuses Paques! (1984), and the mystery L'Inconnu dans la Maison (1992). In 1987, Belmondo returned to the stage for the first time since 1959 and divided his efforts between theater and film from then on. Though he continued his genre work in the 1990s with the romantic comedy Désiré (1996) and his third co-starring turn with Delon in Patrice Leconte's action comedy 1 Chance Sur 2 (1998), Belmondo also branched out creatively as part of the ensemble in Agnès Varda's homage to international cinema Les Cent et une Nuits de Simon Cinema (1995) and as the Jean Valjean figure in Claude Lelouch's 20th century reworking of Les Miserables (1995).
Well-regarded in the French film world as well as by movie audiences throughout his career, Belmondo was elected president of the French actors' union in 1963, and he was awarded the César for his performance in Lelouch's romance Itinéraire d'un Enfant Gaté (1988). He also published his autobiography 30 Years and 25 Films in 1963.