Louis de Funès



It's a myth that the French do not know how to make great film comedies. Comedy has and will always be one of the mainstays of French cinema, thanks in part to France's abundance of superb comedy performers. In film, the greatest French comic actor of them all is Louis de Funès, the star of some of France's most successful screen comedies and a popular cultural icon.
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Affectionately known as Fufu, this giant among comedy giants made making people laugh an art and it is impossible to watch any of his performances without succumbing to his genius for farce, mimicry or general off-the-wall lunacy. In a career that spanned five decades, Louis de Funès lent his inestimable talents to over 150 films, although it wasn't until the mid-1960s that he became a star, the brightest and most enduring in the French comedy firmament.

Born in Courbevoie on 31st July 1914, Louis Germain David de Funès de Galarza (to give him his full name) was descended from the Spanish nobility and was the third child of Carlos Luis de Funes de Galarza, a lawyer who became a diamond merchant with vain hopes of making a fortune after settling with his family in France. His sister Marie ended up marrying the film director François Gir (who gave him one of his first substantial film roles in Mon pote le gitan in 1959), and his older brother Charles died as an infantryman in the French army during WWII, one month before France's capitulation to Nazi Germany. It was through his mother that de Funès became an accomplished pianist at an early age.

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As a boy, de Funès was always getting into trouble, on account of his habit of fooling about, a habit that made it hard for him to succeed at school and later hold down a job. In 1932, he enrolled at the École technique de photographie et de cinéma, where he came into contact with future ace cinematographer Henri Decaë, but managed to get himself expelled for starting a fire. In 1936, he married his first wife, Germaine-Louise-Élodie Carroyer, but the couple separated three years later and were divorced in 1942. When WWII was declared in September 1939, de Funès was turned down by the French army on medical grounds (erroneously as it turned out) and for the next few years he survived on odd jobs before finding work as a pianist in a Parisian nightclub.

It was in 1942 that the 28-year-old de Funès made up his mind that he would embark on a career as an actor. To that end, he enrolled in a drama course and it was here that he met Daniel Gélin. It was the latter, soon to become a major star of French cinema, who led de Funès to make his acting debut in Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon's stage play L'Amant de paille and then his screen debut (appearing in just one scene as a hotel doorman) in Jean Stelli's comedy-fantasy La Tentation de Barbizon (1945). In 1943, he married Jeanne Augustine Barthélemy, a grand-niece of the writer Guy de Maupassant. The couple would have two sons, Patrick and Olivier, the latter of whom would appear in six of his father's films in the 1960s and early 70s before giving up acting altogether.

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Stardom eluded Louis de Funès for many, many years, although he had no difficulty finding work. Over the next ten years, he appeared in around fifty films, always in minor roles, often as a walk-on. Although some directors saw at once his comic potential and made good use of his comedic skills, no one was willing, yet, to offer him a substantial film role. These early films included La Fugue de Monsieur Perle (1952), in which de Funès shared a scene or two with established comedy star Noël-Noël, and La Reine Margot (1954), featuring a debutante Jeanne Moreau. Sacha Guitry cast him in some of his films of this period, notably La Poison (1951). Meanwhile, de Funès also pursued a parallel career off-screen and lent his talents as a pianist and comic to Max Révol's comedy troupe Les Burlesques de Paris and then Robert Dhéry's Les Branquignols.

The actor's first big break came in 1956 when he was cast as the blackmarket pork butcher Jambier (another small role) in Claude Autant-Lara's popular WWII comedy, La Traversée de Paris. This film starred two other icons of French cinema, Jean Gabin and Bourvil, with whom de Funès would work again once he had been elevated to stardom in the mid-1960s. This led director Maurice Régamey to give the actor his first lead role in the enjoyably daft comedy Comme un cheveu sur la soupe (1957), which earned de Funès the Grand Prix du rire in 1957. The popularity of Yves Robert's Ni vu, ni connu (1958), in which de Funès played Alphonse Allais's famous poacher Blaireau, raised his profile further.

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Despite such early successes, stardom still remained elusive and for the next five years the actor was relegated to minor roles in big films (Le Capitaine Fracasse) or biggish roles in minor films (Dans l'eau qui fait des bulles). Just as his film career appeared to be stalling, de Funès' stage career suddenly took off, and it was through his performance in Claude Magnier's stage play Oscar that he had first major success, in 1959. (He later reprised the role in the play's film adaptation, directed by Édouard Molinaro in 1967). It was for this play that de Funès perfected his now familiar screen persona - the likeably tetchy, small-minded authority figure that French audiences loved to hate.

When stardom came de Funès' way, it came suddenly, via Jean Girault's film, Pouic-Pouic, a boisterous comedy that was such a success it guaranteed top billing for the actor on all of his subsequent films. After this first collaboration, director Girault saw de Funès as the perfect choice for the part of the comically irascible lead in Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez (1964). The film's popularity instantly made Louis de Funès one of the most popular actors in France and was followed by five sequels. Hot on the heels of this success, another followed with de Funès' memorable appearance as the inept Inspecteur Juve alongside Jean Marais's green-skinned criminal mastermind in André Hunebelle's Fantômas (1964). Even though de Funès and Marais reputedly hated each other, they agreed to appear in two sequels, the best being Fantômas contre Scotland Yard (1967).

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By now, French cinema audiences just couldn't get enough of de Funès. Appearing with another comic icon, Bourvil, in Gérard Oury's madcap comedy-thriller Le Corniaud (1965), the actor attracted almost 12 million spectators, but this was dwarfed by his next screen triumph. Again partnered with Bourvil, with support from British comedy hero Terry-Thomas, de Funès drew an audience of 17.3 million with Oury's next film, La Grande vadrouille (1966), one of the few de Funès films to get a worldwide distribution, best known outside France under its English title Don't Look Now... We're Being Shot At!  An action-oriented comedy set at the time of the Occupation, this held the record for the most successful film made in France for twenty-two years, finally overtaken by Dany Boon's Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis in 2008. Oury planned a further rematch for his two comic legends in his film La Folie ds grandeurs, but Bourvil's death in 1970 put paid to this and de Funès ended up being paired with Yves Montand in this film.

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Throughout the 1970s, Louis de Funès remained one of French cinema's most bankable stars, although he seldom appeared in films that were worthy of his talents, perhaps because of his preference for working with actors and directors he knew he could get on with. He was particularly loyal to Jean Girault, who directed most of his later comedies, the best being Jo (1971), a rare excursion into black comedy, and L'Avare (1980), an impressive Molière adaptation which he co-directed with de Funès. On the acting front, de Funès especially enjoyed working with Claude Gensac, who played his on-scren wife in several films, notably Le Gendarme se marie (1968). Of the directors he worked with, it was Gérard Oury who showed him at his best. Their final collaboration, Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob (1973), was another notable success, despite its controversial subject matter.

In March 1975, whilst performing La Valse des toréadors on stage, de Funès began to experience pains which were the first symptoms of a heart defect. After suffering a heart attack a short while afterwards, he was admitted to hospital and was forced to take a break from acting. Once he was back on his feet, he was keen to resume his career, but had to be less energetic in his performances as, gradually, his health began a slow deterioration. His next film appearance was in Claude Zidi's L'Aile ou la cuisse, in which he was the perfect comedy foil to another cultural icon in-the-making, Coluche. De Funès starred in five films after this, the best being L'Avare (1980), which was released just a few weeks after the actor received an honorary César in recognition of his contribution to French cinema.

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The strain of making Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes took its toll on de Funès and just a few months after completing work on this film the actor suffered a fatal heart attack, on 27th January 1983. His passing came amid a media frenzy and over three thousand people attended his funeral service at the church of Saint-Martin in Le Cellier in the northwest of France. Through his film work, Louis de Funès remains as alive today as ever he was, entertaining millions around the world through his extraordinary gift for making people laugh. Whenever his films are screened on French television, a ratings busting audience is assured, and some of the mostly popular DVD titles in France have his name on them. The one tragedy of de Funès' career is that he never attained international stardom in his lifetime. A man who was as funny, generous and punctilious as he was deserved far wider celebrity than he achieved, but being a modest and self-deprecating individual at heart he was probably more than satisfied with what he did achieve, which was to make France roll with laughter for the best part of two decades.
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