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French Actor Michel Serrault


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French Actor Michel Serrault

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Actor Michel Serrault

PARIS, France -- French Actor Michel Serrault, whose hit performance as a transvestite in the film and stage versions of "La Cage aux Folles" ("Birds of a Feather") catapulted him to international stardom, died Sunday, July 29 of cancer in his home in the northwestern city of Honfleur, his priest, Rev. Alain Maillard de La Morandais said. He was 79.

Serrault appeared in more than 130 films during a career that spanned half a century. After debuting as a comic actor, Serrault became one of France's most versatile stars, playing a serial killer, a grizzled farmer, a crooked banker and accused rapist.

"I'm against those who only want to entertain," Serrault said in 2002. "I am very happy with all the roles I've played, and I take responsibility for them all." French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid homage to Serrault's "impressive filmography," calling the actor a "monument of the world of the theater, the cinema and the television."

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Michel Serrault

Born on January 24, 1928, in Brunoy, south of Paris, Serrault initially set his sights on the priesthood, briefly entering a seminary. He dropped out, he later explained, because of the vow of chastity. After studying acting in Paris, Serrault began as his stage career playing in cabarets.

He made his silver screen debut in 1954 in Jean Loubignac's "Ah! les belles bacchantes" ("Oh, the lovely revelers"), which was released as "Peek-a-boo" in the United States. His first big break came in 1972, with a leading role in Pierre Tchernia's "Le Viager" ("The Life Annuity")

Speaking Monday on LCI television, Tchernia called Serrault "perhaps the greatest French actor," saying he gave to his profession "all his talent, all his strength, all his humor, all his affection."

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'La Cage aux Folles' co-stars (L-R) Michel Serrault

and Ugo Tognazzi

It was his role as flamboyant gay nightclub owner, Albin Mougeotte, also known as Zaza Napoli, in the theater and film versions of the mega-hit "La Cage aux Folles" ("Birds of a Feather") that catapulted him to fame worldwide. His performance in director Edouard Molinaro's 1978 movie won him the first of three Cesar awards -- the French version of the Oscar.

Serrault remained active, featuring in films through his late seventies. Among his final films was Pierre Javaux's 2006 "Les Enfants du Pays" ("Hometown Boys"), about the role of African soldiers in WWII.

De La Morandais, who performed the actor's last rites, said he told Serrault to "go make God laugh; he really needs it because his job isn't easy." The priest said, "That made him crack a smile. It was very much in the spirit of Michel Serrault."

Serrault is survived by his wife, Juanita and daughter, Nathalie. He is to be buried Thursday in Honfleur.

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