Painting of Marcel Marceau by Jim Howle
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Biography of Marcel Marceau, (Bip the Clown)

Marcel Marceau – Le Mime Marceau – March 22, 1923 – September 22, 2007

Marcel Marceau miming as BipMarcel Marceau is known the world over as the famous mime, Bip.   He is widely recognized as having been influential in restoring the art of pantomime in the 20th century.   Many people know him through his work on television and film, or as the head of a famous European mime school.

But less people know of him as a French freedom fighter during World War II, a man fluent in three languages, a man whose father was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz death camp, a man who served as liaison to Charles De Gaulle.

Early life and training of Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923 in Strasbourg, France. to Charles and Anna Mangel.   Oddly enough, even though Marcel Marceau became famous for his silent performances, was raised in a home surrounded by music — his father sang baritone, and supported music and the arts.   Another oddity was that the man who became famous for not speaking was raised in a bilingual home — his mother Anna was Alsatian (as was the Marx Brothers‘ father, Frenchie).   Something else that would later become essential to the young Marcel’s future was his father’s occupation – Charles was a kosher butcher.

But Marcel’s early years seemed happy, with one seminal moment – when he was five years old, his mother Anna took him to see a Charlie Chaplin movie – and changed his life forever.   He decided that he wanted to become an actor.

Marcel Marceau and World War II

At the beginning of World War II, Marcel had to hide his Jewish origin and changed his name to Marceau, when his Jewish family was forced to flee their home. His father, Charles, was deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed in 1944. Both Marcel Marceau and his brother, Alain, were in the French underground. They helped children to escape to safety in neutral Switzerland. Later, Marcel Marceau served as an interpreter for the Free French Forces under General Charles de Gaulle, acting as liaison officer with the allied armies — in addition to French and German, Marcel had studied English and became trilingual.   After the liberation of Paris, Marcel Marceau gave his first major public performance to 3,000 troops.

Marcel Marceau and the silent mime Bip

Marcel Marceau as Bip - being grumpy

Marcel Marceau as Bip – being grumpy

In 1946, Marcel Marceau enrolled as a student in Charles Dullins School of Dramatic Art at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris, embarking on his career as a pantomime.   At the school, his teacher was Etienne Decroux, whose other apprentice Jean-Louis Barrault hired Marcel and cast him in the role of Harlequin. Marcel Marceau’s greatest inspirations were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. In 1947, blending the ancient clown character of the harlequin with the gestures of Chaplin and Keaton, Marcel Marceau created his most famous mime character, Bip, a white-faced silent clown with a tall battered hat and a red flower.

Painting of Marcel Marceau by Jim Howle

Painting of Marcel Marceau by Jim Howle

Marcel Marceau portrayed many characters, ranging from an innocent child to a peevish waiter, a lion tamer, an old woman, a matador, and many others. Marcel Marceau became acknowledged as one of the world’s finest mimes. Through his alter ego, Bip, he displayed the human comedy silently, and so universally appealing.   In 1949, Marcel Marceau created a mime troupe and began touring the world.

Marcel Marceau in the movies

In the early 1950’s he began a film career as well, appearing in Journal Masculin (1951), Un jardin public (1954), Pantomimes (1954), Die schöne Lügnerin (1959), Es (1966), Yego zvali Robert (1967), Shanks (1974), Les Îles (1983), Elogio della pazzia (1986), Kinski Paganini (1989).

Marcel even made a few film appearances where he was neither silent, nor a mime. This include a mad professor in Barbarella, and the only speaking character in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.   In addition, he was a regular on American television, such as The Dinah Shore Show, Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, The Flip Wilson Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (5 times), Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and many others.   In fact, Marcel Marceau won an Emmy in 1956 and was a co-presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards — ironically for Best Sound.

Marcel Marceau’s personal life

Although Marcel Marceau’s public life was very successful, his private life was less so.   In 1958, he divorced Huguette Mallette, mother of 2 of his children.   He remarried, to Ella Jaroszewicz on June 6, 1966, but this marriage also ended in divorce.   He married for the third and final time to Anne Sicco in 1975. This marriage lasted the rest of his life.

Marcel Marceau, the world’s most famous mime, an accomplished actor, writer, and teacher, died of heart failure on September 22, 2007.   He was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.

Quotes from Marcel Marceau

  • Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug. That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another.
    — on the children killed in Auschwitz.
  • If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on. You have to keep working.
    — 2003 Associated Press interview.
  • I have a feeling that I did for mime what (Andres) Segovia did for the guitar, what (Pablo) Casals did for the cello.
    — Associated Press interview.
  • Yes, I cried for him.
    — on his father’s death in Auschwitz
  • The people who came back from the [concentration] camps were never able to talk about it. My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence.
    — on a reason for his interest in the wordless art.
  • The most touching moments of our existence, leave us without words. It’s very difficult for a mime to lie, because for lying, the words are necessary.

You may also be interested in this photo gallery of Marcel Marceau/Bip


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