A highly respected character actor for over five decades, Michael Lonsdale was an understated but consistently believable presence in European films, as well as Hollywood efforts lensed there, including "The Bride Wore Black" (1966), "The Day of the Jackal" (1973), "Moonraker" (1979)" and "Of Gods and Men" (2010). His quiet but forceful presence frequently led to him being cast as religious figures, like the Benedictine abbot in "The Name of the Rose" (1986) and the philosophical monk in "Gods and Men," but he also essayed his share of lawyers, businessmen, government officials and a few royals, to which he brought carefully measured layers of humanity. Lonsdale's success in Europe attracted the attention of Hollywood, but save for a few studio pictures like the James Bond adventure "Moonraker," he assiduously avoided American features in favor of continental fare. He grew busier as he grew older, yielding greater acclaim and awards, including a Cesar for "Of Gods and Men" in his eighth decade. Lonsdale's commitment to his art, and the sheer quantity of exceptional performances to his name, made him one of Europe's most well regarded players.
Born May 24, 1931 in Paris, France, Michael Lonsdale spent the first nine years of his life in London before relocating with his parents to Morocco in 1939. His father planned to establish a business there, but the outbreak of World War II halted these plans. The arrival of Allied forces in North African brought Lonsdale's first exposure to Hollywood films through officers who befriended his parents and invited his family to Army screenings. He began to explore acting as a teenager after moving to Paris to study painting, and made his stage debut there at the age of 24. Bilingual in French and English from an early age, Lonsdale began appearing in French features and television productions as early as 1956. Billed frequently as Michel Lonsdale, he worked steadily if anonymously for the next half-decade before gaining his first international production with Orson Welles' "The Trial" (1962), based on the novel by Franz Kafka.
From there, Lonsdale became a regularly featured player in European films, as well as Hollywood pictures lensed there. His innate gravitas and rich voice made him a natural as authority figures, frequently with a spiritual bent. Lonsdale soon amassed an impressive CV, filled with small but significant collaborations with such noted filmmakers as Fred Zinnemann on "Behold a Pale Horse" (1964), René Clément on "Is Paris Burning?" (1966), Marguerite Duras on "Détruire dit-elle" (1969), Jacques Rivette on the epic "Out 1" (1971) and Louis Malle on the international hit "Murmur of the Heart" (1971). Francois Truffaut cast him as one of Jeanne Moreau's victims in the suspenseful "The Bride Wore Black" (1966) and later, as the much-loathed shoe salesman under investigation by the hapless Jean-Pierre Leaud in "Stolen Kisses" (1968).
Lonsdale came to international attention with Zinneman's "The Day of the Jackal" (1973), for which he was second-billed as the chief French investigator on the trail of Edward Fox's shadowy assassin. He received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, which led to more substantive roles in features like Alan Resnais' crime comedy "Stavisky." (1974) and as the masochistic hatter in Luis Bunuel's surreal "The Phantom of Liberty" (1975). Lonsdale also continued to maintain his working relationship with directors like Duras with 1974's "Night Song," which he later described as his favorite film, thanks to his role as a psychologically tortured vice-consul.
In 1979, Lonsdale was cast as Sir Hugo Drax, a villainous industrialist who planned to wipe out humanity in order to rule a colony in space in the James Bond thriller "Moonraker." Despite its popularity, he resisted offers from Hollywood, citing Europe and its cinema as his home. High-profile pictures still followed, including "The Bunker" (CBS, 1981), with Lonsdale as Joseph Goebbels opposite Anthony Hopkins' Adolf Hitler, and "The Holcroft Covenant" (1985) with Michael Caine. In 1986, he played a sympathetic Benedictine abbot whose abbey was the site of a murder in Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Name of the Rose," then returned to French and Italian features for nearly a decade before re-emerging in the Merchant-Ivory productions "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and "Jefferson in Paris" (1995), the latter of which cast him as King Louis XVI. That same year, he earned a Cesar nomination as a mysterious figure in Claude Sautet's "Nelly & Mr. Arnaud," and enjoyed a choice turn three years later as another shadowy individual in John Frankenheimer's thriller "Ronin" (1998).
Lonsdale grew busier than ever in the 21st century, appearing in three to four films a year. Most of these were French productions, though he appeared as Daniel Craig's father in Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005). Two years later, he earned a second Cesar nomination as a CEO with a Nazi past in Nicolas Klotz's "Heartbeat Detector" (2007). In 2010, he received some of the best reviews of his career as a philosophical monk whose Algerian abbey came under assault by Islamic fundamentalists in "Of Gods and Men." The film earned Lonsdale his first Cesar in 2011, and brought the eighty-year-old to international acclaim.
By Paul Gaita
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Professional stage debut in Clifford Odets's "The country girl"