Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, dies aged 88

French actor, nicknamed Bébel, was one of country’s biggest stars in 1960s and 1970s

Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor who shot to international fame in Jean-Luc Godard's revolutionary New Wave classic Breathless, has died aged 88. The actor's lawyer confirmed the news to AFP.

Belmondo – nicknamed Bébel by French audiences – became one of the country's biggest box-office stars in the 1960s and 1970s, his battered-looking face a contrast to the chiselled features of his rival and sometime-collaborator Alain Delon. Like Delon, Belmondo was a key figure of the outstanding generation of European film-making of the period, with the series of films he made with Godard – which included A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou – making an indelible mark.

Born in 1933 in the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, son of "pied-noir" sculptor Paul Belmondo, Belmondo attended a string of elite private schools but did poorly. He showed more interest in sport, and embarked on a brief amateur boxing career as a teenager. After contracting tuberculosis, he became interested in performing, and applied to the elite National Academy of Dramatic Arts, eventually gaining a place in 1952.

After graduation, Belmondo began acting in the theatre, appearing in plays by Anouilh, Feydeau and George Bernard Shaw. He also secured a string of small film roles: in one of them, Marc Allegret's 1958 comedy Un Drôle de Dimanche, he was spotted by Godard who was then still a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma. Godard cast him in a 12-minute short, Charlotte and Her Boyfriend – billed as "a homage to Cocteau", it consists of Belmondo's character ranting at his girlfriend in a hotel room. (The voice was supplied by Godard himself, after Belmondo was conscripted into the army to serve in Algeria. )


Before Godard could get a feature off the ground, his fellow critic Claude Chabrol cast Belmondo in his 1959 thriller A Double Tour (AKA Web of Passion), playing the murder victim's boyfriend. The character's name, Laszlo Kovacs, would recur in Breathless as a sly in-joke. But it was Godard's film, shot in the late summer of 1959, that secured Belmondo's ascension as the louche face of the French New Wave.

Based on a treatment by François Truffaut and Chabrol, Breathless was inspired by the real-life activities of killer Michel Portail. Much has been written about Breathless' unorthodox production, with Godard writing new dialogue every day, and shooting without lighting to allow for acting spontaneity; Belmondo responded brilliantly to Godard's tactics, and the film became a substantial commercial hit on its release in 1960.

Belmondo also took more straightforward roles: in Classe Tous Risques, also released in 1960, he played a young gangster who helps an armed robber escape with his children to Paris. However, the success of Breathless catapulted him into the limelight and he quickly became an international star, appearing in Peter Brook's adaptation of Moderato Cantabile and playing opposite Sophia Loren in Two Women, from Italian director Vittorio De Sica.

But – like Delon – he preferred to concentrate on French cinema, extending his relationship with Godard with the fourth-wall-breaking A Woman Is a Woman in 1961, and developing another with Jean-Pierre Melville, a favourite of the New Wave critics, and who had a cameo role in Breathless. Belmondo played an ambiguous, sexy cleric in Léon Morin, Priest for Melville in 1962, following it up with Melville’s Le Doulos in 1963, in which he plays a robber suspected of being an informant.

Belmondo specialised in playing gangsters and low-lives, although he scored a big hit in 1962 with Cartouche, playing a raffish 18th-century swordsman opposite Claudia Cardinale. That Man from Rio – a spy spoof with Françoise Dorléac – was another big hit with the same director, Philippe de Broca, and was more in tune with Belmondo's own populist tastes; describing Moderato Cantabile as "very boring" he told the New York Times in 1964: "I really prefer making adventure movies like Rio to the intellectual movies of Alain Resnais or Alain Robbe-Grillet."

Having given up acting for a year in 1967-8, Belmondo returned to work but at a less furious pace, making films for Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid), Claude Lelouch (Love Is a Funny Thing) and Jacques Deray (Borsalino) – although he fell out with co-star Delon over billing in the latter film. Following Delon's example, Belmondo moved behind the camera, producing films by Chabrol (Dr Popaul), De Broca (The Man from Acapulco) and – ironically – Renais, in the shape of the 1930s-set political drama Stavisky.

Belmondo kept up a string of popular hits in France into the mid-80s, with comedies, action films and crime dramas, but his output began to slow towards the end of the decade, and he returned to the theatre, performing in Cyrano de Bergerac and Jean-Paul Sartre's Kean. His highest-profile film role of the 1990s was in Lelouch's adaptation of Les Misérables, while he reunited with Delon in Une Chance Sur Deux in 1998, in which neither are sure which of them is Vanessa Paradis' father.

In 2001, he was hospitalised with a stroke, and did not make any films until 2009's A Man and His Dog, which did not hide the effects of his condition. In June last year he was seen attending the funeral of the comedian and screenwriter Guy Bedos in Paris.

Three weeks ago he was photographed smiling at a party to mark his 88th birthday with a number of his children and grandchildren, including his youngest daughter, Stella, who is 17.

Belmondo was married twice, to fellow actor Élodie Constantin between 1952 and 1968, and dancer Natty Tardivel from 2002-2008. He also had a number of high-profile relationships, including with Ursula Andress in the late 1960s, Laura Antonelli, with whom he co-starred in Dr Popaul, in the 1970s, and nightclub owner Barbara Gandolfi, from whom he separated in 2012. – Guardian