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French Film Star Jean-Paul Belmondo, The Epitome Of Cool, Dies At 88

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The actor Jean-Paul Belmondo has died. He came to fame in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave classic "Breathless." He went on to become a French national treasure. He was 88 years old. He was often compared to such American icons as Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart. NPR's Bob Mondello remembers.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He wasn't conventionally handsome. His face was craggy, his nose flat, his eyes hooded. And with a cigarette dangling from his lip, he always looked to be spoiling for a fight. But for midcentury audiences, his brand of rebellion was the very essence of cool. Cast him as a professional car thief and existential killer opposite America's Jean Seberg...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

JEAN SEBERG: (As Patricia Franchini) New York Herald Tribune.

MONDELLO: ...As Jean-Luc Godard did in "Breathless..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

SEBERG: (As Patricia Franchini) New York Herald Tribune.

MONDELLO: ...And there was no question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

MONDELLO: He made crime sexy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

SEBERG: (As Patricia Franchini, speaking French).

BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Later in the film, looking into a mirror, he tells her he's a boxer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard, speaking French).

MONDELLO: And, in fact, he'd been one before becoming an actor, winning four of his nine professional fights. He'd also been a stage performer and a soccer player, but he left most of that behind after his funny physical performance, chain smoking and talking to the camera in "Breathless," made him an international sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

BELMONDO: (As Michel Poiccard) Oh la la.

MONDELLO: "Breathless" was one of eight films he made in 1960, eight more in 1961 as he rode the French New Wave to such fame that by the end of that decade, he was one of France's biggest commercial stars. He claimed not to understand the intellectual films that had made him famous and to prefer the comedies and action flicks in which he later did his own stunts, dangling from helicopters and tall buildings, standing atop moving trains and sometimes getting injured. A serious mishap on a movie set when he was 53 finally put an end to all that. He was offered films in Hollywood but passed, noting that he'd have too much trouble with English. And anyway, he could act for directors like Godard and Francois Truffaut and opposite Sophia Loren, Ursula Andress and Catherine Deneuve without the bother.

A stroke in 2001 left him unable to speak for six months, and he only appeared once on screen after that in "A Man And His Dog" as an elderly pensioner who found himself homeless. In real life, that was hardly his lot. He was celebrated to the very end, recently photographed with family at his 80th birthday party. Bob Mondello, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.