Obituary

Star-crossed Don Quixote actor Jean Rochefort a mainstay of French film industry

French actor Jean Rochefort in 2012 after the screening of Fernando Trueba's film El Artista Y La Modelo during the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival, in the northern Spanish Basque city.
French actor Jean Rochefort in 2012 after the screening of Fernando Trueba's film El Artista Y La Modelo during the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival, in the northern Spanish Basque city.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Jean Rochefort, the French actor who played a key role in one of the most cursed movie sagas in Hollywood history, has died, his daughter said on Monday. He was 87.

Rochefort was a French national treasure who had scored a major international hit in 1990 with The Hairdresser's Husband when he was cast to play Don Quixote in 1998 by former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, who dreamed of bringing the "unfilmable" Cervantes novel to the big screen.

But things soon began to go wrong with the wildly ambitious project, in which Johnny Depp was to play a marketing executive sent back in time whom the elderly knight mistakes for his squire, Sancho Panza.

Rochefort was struck by a prostate infection on the first day of shooting in Spain, which left him in agony on the back of his half-starved horse.

On the second day, a flash flood washed away the sets. Four days later, the production collapsed when Rochefort had to be airlifted to hospital for surgery for a double hernia.

Over the next two decades, Gilliam failed seven times to get the project off the ground again and his doomed efforts to revive it became the subject of an acclaimed 2002 documentary, Lost In La Mancha.

But last year, Amazon agreed to fund the film and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is expected to be released next year.

Rochefort was critical of Gilliam, telling French television in 2014 that the American director had starved his horse before shooting began to make it look haggard.

An experienced horseman, Rochefort said he was shocked to see "the people around me had apples tied to their backs" so the horse would follow them. He said it died the day after he left the set.

But that did not stop Gilliam, who is in the final stages of editing the film, from being effusive in his tribute to Rochefort.

"He was a great actor... brave and determined to continue shooting despite being in severe pain," he wrote on Facebook.

"His was the face and spirit of The Knight of the Mournful Countenance. I imagined that, like Quixote, he was capable of living forever."

Rochefort was a mainstay of the French film industry for more than half a century, appearing in comedies and blockbusters as well as art films.

He won three Cesars - the French equivalent of the Oscars - the first for Bertrand Tavernier's 1975 film Let Joy Reign Supreme and the second for 1977's Drummer-Crab. A lifetime achievement award followed in 1999.

Famous for his wit and self-deprecating humour, he later joked: "I am part of (French) national heritage. There is Bayonne ham, (Philippe) Noiret, (Jean-Pierre) Marielle and me," in reference to two other well-known actors.

Born in Paris to prosperous parents, Rochefort claimed to have had a deadly dull childhood in the Western city of Nantes. "Lord, I was bored as a child," he said.

His breakthrough did not come till he was nearly 30.

Yves Robert began casting him on a regular basis, starting with The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe in 1972, before he enjoyed a long partnership with Patrice Leconte on The Hairdresser's Husband, Ridicule (1996) and The Man On The Train (2002).

He formally retired after starring in his last film Floride in 2015, playing a former industrialist who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "I do not want to make horror films, so I had better stop," he said.

Leconte said Rochefort was a "great laugher" and they would often call each other to share jokes. "Who am I going to call to now?" he said.

Rochefort had a passion for horses and owned a stud farm west of Paris.

He was once invited by the French president to dine with Queen Elizabeth II and accepted, thinking he would be one among hundreds. In fact, there were eight guests, including former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

Rochefort found himself seated directly across from the Queen but rose to the occasion, managing to make small talk about her daughter, Princess Anne, a keen equestrian, the weather and even blacksmithing.

"I have been told you still practise cold shoeing in Hampshire," he said, refering to a waning method of protecting horses' hooves.

"No, less and less," the Queen replied.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Star-crossed Don Quixote actor Jean Rochefort a mainstay of French film industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe