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Actor Louis Jourdan was the epitome of continental charm in dozens of dramas both in his native France and in Hollywood, including "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948), "The Swan" (1955), "Gigi" (1958) and "The V.I.P.s" (1963). Possessed of dark good looks, an innate elegance, and a deep, sonorous voice, he romanced some of the screen's most legendary leading ladies, including Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Leslie Caron. Off-camera, he bristled at his stereotyping and sought more substantive parts on Broadway and television. He moved into character parts in the late 1960s and 1970s, essaying such celebrated characters as Count Dracula and D'Artagnan in TV movies. A spate of high-profile projects, including the James Bond thriller "Octopussy" (1983), preceded his retirement in 1992. His ability to move successfully between films, stage and television over the course of four decades while retaining his signature appeal made him one of Hollywood's most durable players.He was born Louis Genre in Marseille, France; accounts varied as to his birth year, which was frequently cited as 1921, but also 1919 and 1920. The first son of hotelier Henry Gendre and his wife, Yvonne Jourdan, he...
Actor Louis Jourdan was the epitome of continental charm in dozens of dramas both in his native France and in Hollywood, including "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948), "The Swan" (1955), "Gigi" (1958) and "The V.I.P.s" (1963). Possessed of dark good looks, an innate elegance, and a deep, sonorous voice, he romanced some of the screen's most legendary leading ladies, including Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Leslie Caron. Off-camera, he bristled at his stereotyping and sought more substantive parts on Broadway and television. He moved into character parts in the late 1960s and 1970s, essaying such celebrated characters as Count Dracula and D'Artagnan in TV movies. A spate of high-profile projects, including the James Bond thriller "Octopussy" (1983), preceded his retirement in 1992. His ability to move successfully between films, stage and television over the course of four decades while retaining his signature appeal made him one of Hollywood's most durable players.
He was born Louis Genre in Marseille, France; accounts varied as to his birth year, which was frequently cited as 1921, but also 1919 and 1920. The first son of hotelier Henry Gendre and his wife, Yvonne Jourdan, he became acquainted with some of the great figures of 20th century art, including Picasso and Matisse, while staying as guests at his father's hotel in Cannes. The exposure to such figures cultivated in Jourdan an appreciation of the arts, including music and literature, but acting soon became his primary passion. With his brother, Pierre, he traveled to Paris, where both enrolled in the prestigious Ecole Dramatique. There, he studied drama under the famed actor and educator René Simon, and apprenticed with director Marc Allégret on his 1938 film "Entrée des Artises" ("The Curtain Rises") (1938) as a production assistant. The film's star, Louis Jouvet, took note of the teenager's handsome looks and innate grace, and recommended to Allégret that his talents were best served in front of, rather than behind the camera. Jourdan was soon cast in his first film, Allégret's "Le Corsaire" ("The Pirate") (1938), which had attracted major attention as actor Charles Boyer's first film in France since his rise to stardom in Hollywood. Production was halted after five weeks due to the arrival of German forces in Poland, and Jourdan and his castmates were soon called to national service.
He returned to moviemaking in 1940 with "Untel Pere et Fils" just as the Nazis seized control of France. Jourdan continued to act in French films, graduating from fresh-faced juvenile romantics to leading men in 1942's "L'Arlesienne" for Allégret and a non-singing version of "La Boheme" called "La Vie de Boheme" (1943). He ran afoul of German forces after refusing to act in propaganda films, and was sentenced to hard labor. However, he managed to escape and return to Cannes, where he secured his father's escape from the German forces. After he and his father were reunited, Jourdan became an active participant in the Resistance movement by printing and distributing anti-Nazi material. When Paris was liberated in 1944, Jourdan returned to his acting career, which received a boost when many of the films he had made in years prior finally made their way to French screens after being delayed by the war.
According to popular legend, Jourdan's entry into Hollywood was paved by producer David O. Selznick, who offered him a contract after meeting Jourdan at the Ritz Carlton in Cannes. He made his American feature debut opposite Gregory Peck and Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case" (1947), as a valet who becomes the scapegoat in a corrupt murder trial. The film endured numerous rewrites as well as a substantial re-edit by Selznick upon its release, which resulted in mixed reviews from the critics. Jourdan's true breakout picture was its follow-up, "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948), with Joan Fontaine as a woman whose lifelong, unrequited passion for a rakish pianist (Jourdan) leads to his downfall. The picture established him as a romantic continental-type figure, à la Charles Boyer - "cooing in women's ears," as Jourdan saw it - that he would reprise in numerous subsequent films, including "Madame Bovary" (1949) with Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones.
Jourdan fought constantly against his stereotyping as a Latin lover, which on several occasions earned him a suspension from the studios by Selznick. He found a refuge in radio dramas, where he enjoyed more substantive parts in productions of "Camille" with Joan Fontaine and an adaptation of "The Paradine Case" with Joseph Cotten. In 1950, Darryl F. Zanuck bought his contract from Selznick, and Jourdan hoped that it would signal a change in his cinematic fortunes. Unfortunately, what he was offered was overripe adventure films like "Bird of Paradise" (1951) and "Anne of the Indies" (1951), which again cast him as exotic romantic leads. On occasion, he earned a reprieve from these roles on television anthologies, most notably "A String of Blue Beads" (1953), with Jourdan as a grieving widower at Christmas time, and a turn as a dissolute European pressed into driving a truckload of nitroglycerin over rugged Guatemalan terrain in an adaptation of "The Wages of Fear" for "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57) that aired before the celebrated 1955 film version by Henri-Georges Cluzot. But audiences preferred him in romantic parts like the amorous Prince Dino in "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954). A disillusioned Jourdan eventually lobbied for release from his studio contract, which allowed him to pursue projects more to his liking.
He achieved critical success on stage in "The Immoralist" (1953) as a gay archaeologist whose attempts to curb his sexuality with a marriage to Geraldine Page are undone by a predatory houseboy, initially played by James Dean. Jourdan journeyed back to France to play a detective in the series "Paris Precinct," which became a surprise hit on ABC in 1955. He then returned to the stage for "Tonight in Samarkand" on Broadway in 1955, and soon balanced a steady diet of live TV dramas with panel and variety shows, where his charm and wit made him a popular guest. Hollywood eventually came around with more character-driven roles, including a kindly, bookish tutor who captured the heart of a princess (Grace Kelly) in "The Swan" (1955) and a psychotic husband to Doris Day in "Julie" (1955).
Jourdan was resistant to composer Alan Jay Lerner's request for him to play the bored, young bon vivant hero of his musical "Gigi" (1958). He had finally reached a level of satisfaction with his roles, and was reluctant to return to romantic parts. Jourdan also expressed serious doubts about his ability to carry a tune, but eventually relented. The charming musical became one of his most enduring film projects, thanks to beloved songs like "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "I Remember it Well." It was also one of Jourdan's most honored projects, with a record-breaking nine Academy Awards and three Golden Globes; Jourdan himself would net a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor for his deft performance.
The success of "Gigi" would give an uptick to his film career that would last through the early '60s. He made his second and final film musical with "Can-Can" (1960), a lightweight comedy with Jourdan as a straight-arrow judge who fell for the saucy owner (Shirley Maclaine) of a Paris nightclub, and drove a wedge between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the glossy "V.I.P.s" (1963). But as the decade wore on, Jourdan remained stuck in romantic roles, and more often than not, turned to television for quality projects like "Run a Crooked Mile" (NBC, 1969), a thriller about an amnesiac (Jourdan) who witnesses a murder. He also played a paranormal investigator in two superior but unsold pilots, "Fear No Evil" (NBC, 1969) and "Ritual of Evil" (NBC, 1970). The high points of his American TV movie career came in the late '70s with a trifecta of literary adaptations; in "The Count of Monte-Cristo" (NBC, 1975), he was the villainous prosecutor who sent Richard Chamberlain's Edmond Dantes to prison, while in "The Man in the Iron Mask" (NBC, 1977), he was Alexandre Dumas' heroic musketeer, D'Artagnan. He was also an acclaimed and altogether sensual Dracula in the BBC production "Count Dracula" (1977), which aired on "Great Performances" (PBS, 1971- ) in America.
The late '70s and early '80s found Jourdan considerably reducing his screen efforts by touring the world in productions of "Present Laughter" and "13 Rue d'Amour" with his "Gigi" co-star, Leslie Caron. He suffered an immense personal tragedy during this period with the death of his only son, Louis Henry, from a drug overdose in 1981. Jourdan threw himself into a string of lesser projects, from the Wes Craven science fiction thriller "Swamp Thing" (1981), based on the popular DC comics series, to "Octopussy" (1982), a lesser James Bond franchise entry with a visibly aging Roger Moore battling Jourdan's renegade Afghan prince. In 1984, he returned to "Gigi," though as the aging roué played by Maurice Chevalier, for a stage production that toured throughout the country. There were a few more unremarkable film and television projects before his final screen effort, a wan romantic comedy called" Year of the Comet" in 1992. Jourdan retired from the screen and divided his time between homes in Los Angeles and the South of France. In 2010, a cadre of famous admirers, including Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, were on hand to see the 89-year-old Jourdan receive the Legion of Honour medal from Pierre Vimont, the French Ambassador to the United States.
By Paul Gaita
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