He was a world-famous entertainer. He was best known as a mime artist, certainly the best of his time, and arguably the best ever, except for the legendary silent film star, Charlie Chaplin. However, he was more than just a mime. He was an accomplished actor, tv personality, author, and teacher, mostly in his native France but also all over the world. He entertained us for more than 60 years. But, I believe his most significant contribution to posterity was as a member of the French resistance during WWII. Read on, and you see what I mean.
Marcel Mangel was born in Strasbourg, France on March 22, 1923 to working-class Jewish parents. His father was a kosher butcher who had emigrated from Poland. His mother was from present-day Ukraine. He was a cousin of well-known Israeli folk and pop music singer Yardena Azazi on his mother’s side.
Marceau recalled that he became interested in mime at the age of five when his mother took him to see a Charlie Chaplin film. He was “entranced,” and knew then and there what career he would pursue.
When Germany invaded France in 1940 Marceau’s family fled to Limoges, which is in the west-central part of the country. Later, in Paris, Marceau studied under Yvonne Hagnauer an educator who saved many people from the Nazis during WWII. (After the war the State of Israel, in recognition of her actions, honored her with the designation “Righteous among the Nations.”)
The Nazis captured Marceau’s parents in 1944 and deported them to Auschwitz. His father was murdered in the camp, but his mother survived.
In Limoges Marcel hooked up with his younger brother, Alain, and they joined the French Jewish Resistance. They changed their last name to Marceau in honor of Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, who was a general during the French revolution.
Marcel was not an experienced fighter or marksman. However, he did have a talent that was much more valuable to the resistance. He was a superb artist, which meant he was very adept at producing forged documents. As we know, forged documents that looked authentic enough to withstand detailed scrutiny were essential for Jews and others attempting to escape or even hide in place.
During the remainder of the war the brothers rescued hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews, mostly children, from the camps or from hiding places by guiding them over the Alps from France to neutral Switzerland and safety. Marcel saved many more by providing them with the aforementioned forged documents. Moreover, on several occasions he employed his mime skills to quiet and calm nervous children so as to avoid capture.
After the war Marcel commenced to pursue his chosen career. He studied at the prestigious Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris under renowned instructors such as Jean-Louis Barrault, Etienne Decroux and Joshua Smith. In 1947 he created his signature character, “Bip the Clown.” “Bip” would come out dressed in a “striped pullover and a battered be-flowered silk opera hat.” During the act “Bip” would suffer through a series of humorous “misadventures.” The character was a huge hit, and it became his “alter ego” reminiscent of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.”
Marcel became very popular, and he soon became recognized as a mime “without peer.” During an interview with CBS in 1987 he described mime as “the art of silence.” One critic gushed, “he accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.” Marcel would modestly give credit to Chaplin for paving the way.
Before long, Marcel became an international star, performing what he termed “mimodramas” all over the world. His first tour in the US drew record-breaking crowds. He made various appearances on tv shows with entertainers such as Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, and Red Skelton (who was also a superb mime). He and Skelton performed together in three concerts of pantomimes. As a young boy I remember seeing Marcel on tv on “The Red Skelton Show.”
Marcel was much more than the best mime of his generation. For example:
1. He wrote two children’s books.
2. He published a book of his paintings and sketches. Much of his artwork is on display in museums.
3. In 1969 he established his first school of mime in Paris, which also included fencing, acrobatics and ballet. It only lasted two years, but in 1978 he established a second school.
4. In 1996 he established the Marceau Foundation to promote the art of mime in the US.
5. He appeared in several movies, both in France and the US. The one that American audiences may recall was “Barbarella,” in 1968, which starred a scantily-clad Jane Fonda. The other notable movie was called, appropriately, “Silent Movie” (1976). Ironically, Marcel, the world-renown mime, spoke the only word in the entire movie, “non.”
6. He became a close friend of entertainer, Michael Jackson who told an interviewer he had always been “in awe” of Marceau’s “skill as a performer.”
7. Marcel was the recipient of countless awards, testimonials, and honorary degrees, too many to list here. One, however, stands out. The University of Michigan awarded him the Wallenberg Medal in recognition of his humanitarianism and acts of courage in saving numerous refugees, both Jews and non-Jews during WWII. His wartime exploits were portrayed in a recent tv movie, “Resistance,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau. It is available on Netflix. I strongly recommend it.
Marcel was married three times and fathered four children. He also had a decades-long relationship with female mime Paulette Frankl who described their long relationship in a memoir released in 2014.
Marcel passed away in a retirement home in Cahors, France on September 22, 2007. As I said, despite his outstanding 60 year entertainment career, I maintain his greatest contribution was in guiding numerous refugees to safety during WWII. Think how many people are alive today because of the bravery and unique talent Marcel Marceau.