Philippe Noiret qualifies as the ultimate European Renaissance actor. A burly, unconventionally handsome figure with a distinct countenance, Noiret established himself as a force on stage and screen, effortlessly straddled countless genres, and graced the casts of French, Italian, British, and occasional American films up through the end of his life.
Born in Lille, France, on October 1, 1930, Noiret trained as a thespian at the Comedie de l'Ouest and subsequently joined Jean Vilar's TNP stage ensemble. He segued into film at the behest of Agnès Varda -- then a photographer assigned to snap pictures of the TNP -- in her 1955 directorial debut, La Pointe Courte. In that picture, Noiret and Sylvia Montfort play a Parisian couple who migrate to a rural village and attempt to sort out their relationship while the town organizes a workers' union.
In 1959, 27-year-old Louis Malle -- the youngest recipient of the Golden Palm in movie history and a cause célèbre for his scandalous 1958 picture Les Amants -- sought an actor to play Gabriel, the transvestite uncle of the foul-mouthed 11-year-old prankster Zazie, in his surrealistic adaptation of Raymond Queneau's absurdist novel Zazie dans le Metro (1960). By its very nature, Zazie required heavy-duty improvisation and grotesque, larger-than-life, cartoonish overacting. Almost everyone -- including Malle -- perceived Noiret as the ideal choice, because of the actor's ability to draw on extensive improvisational experience (and stage projection) from his days with the Comedie de l'Ouest and TNP. In addition, Noiret demonstrated unshakable, almost foolhardy bravery on the set, when he blithely heeded Malle's tongue-in-cheek request to "ad lib" by waltzing out, in a simulated drunken stupor, onto the very edge of a platform on one of the highest rungs of the Eiffel Tower. Unsurprisingly, that shot appears in the completed film. And just as unsurprisingly, it became one of Noiret's most infamous turns until his 1989 Cinema Paradiso.
Noiret debuted as an English-language film actor in 1969, as Henri Jarre, a member of a French spy ring, in Topaz, Alfred Hitchcock's lackluster (and generally suspense-free) adaptation of the Leon Uris novel of the same title. He followed it up with a supporting role in George Cukor's equally disappointing 1969 film Justine, starring Anouk Aimée.
Noiret starred in around 120 additional films over the next several decades, but he made his most enduring mark under the directorial gaze of film-critic-cum-director Bertrand Tavernier, with whom he made eight projects -- which led many to perceive Noiret as the director's onscreen alter ego and unveiled the full-fledged, graceful extent of the actor's dramatic range. Their collaborations include L'Horloger de Saint-Paul (aka The Watchmaker of St. Paul, 1974), with Noiret as a dismayed father grappling with his son's involvement in terrorist activities; Que la fête commence... (aka Let Joy Reign Supreme . . ., 1975), a costume drama with Noiret as Philippe d'Orleans, humanistic regent to Louis XV in early 18th century France; Le Juge et l'Assassin (aka The Judge and the Assassin, 1976), with Noiret as a magistrate who balances the life of an accused child killer in his hands; Une Semaine de vacances (aka A Week's Vacation, 1980) with Noiret as Michel Descombes, one of the many small-town characters encountered by schoolteacher Nathalie Baye during her week-long leave of absence (and recuperation) from teaching; Coup de Torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981), with Noiret as a French policeman circa 1938, assigned to a segregated African colony; Noiret's fleeting role as Redon in the jazz elegy 'Round Midnight (1986), starring the legendary Dexter Gordon; La Vie et Rien d'Autre (aka Life and Nothing But, 1991), with Noiret as a post-WWI French Army officer assigned to tabulate the number of casualties two years after the armistice; and Fille de d'Artagnan (aka Revenge of the Musketeers, 1994), with Noiret as the legendary musketeer d'Artagnan, whose daughter (Sophie Marceau) vows to continue the legacy of her swashbuckling father.
Noiret made his deepest impression on the public, however, with two key international roles: that of the warm and sympathetic projectionist Alfredo in Giuseppe Tornatore's 1989 arthouse hit Cinema Paradiso (a role for which he won the BAFTA award for Best Actor), and that of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who strikes up an ongoing friendship with his mailman, in Michael Radford's 1994 Il Postino.
Noiret juggled a full spate of projects up through his final year; his last film, released posthumously, was Michel Boujenah's 2007 Trois Amis, co-starring Mathilde Seigner and Pascal Elbe. He died of cancer in a Parisian hospital on November 23, 2006, and was survived by his wife, the actress Monique Noiret (whom he married in 1962) and their daughter.