Michel Simon was born in Geveva, Switzerland, in 1895, the son of a sausage-maker. He was conscripted into the Swiss army in 1914 but was expelled on account of his ill health and unruly behaviour. He then worked as a boxer, photographer and odd-job man, before deciding that his future lay in entertainment.
Simon began his acting career in theatre in 1920 as a walk-on, before moving to Paris in 1923. There he quickly made a name for himself, appearing on stage with stars Louis Jouvet and Pitoëff. In 1925 he played Boudu, one of the roles for which he is now best known, in the stage play, with great success.
Michel Simon’s illustrious film career began with small parts in silent films of the 1920s. It was not until 1931, when he starred in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, that he won public recognition. Unfortunately this film, along with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux, were poorly received at the time (athough all three are now regarded as classic masterpieces). But this did not harm Simon’s career one bit. His larger than life personality, impeccable comic timing and great repertoire (including tramp, sadistic crook, failed actor, and much more) made him attractive to film directors and he was rarely out of work throughout the 1930s. He became the most instantly recognisable and popular actor of his generation.
During the 1950s, Simon was partly paralysed after an accident involving makeup. Although his workload steadily decreased as a result, he continued to appear in films right up to his death in 1975. However it is probably for his role as Père Jules in Vigo’s L’Atalante that he will be best known: the slightly roguish, ageing barge-man with a heart of gold.
After a full life, in which he made no secret of his love for animals and women, he died in a hospital near to Paris, practically alone at the age of 80. He will be remembered not just as a great actor and personality, but as one of the founding fathers of French cinema.To find out more about Michel Simon, visit the website of the association "Les Amis de Michel Simon", which is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of one of France’s greatest actors : http://amichelsimon.free.fr/
Michel Simon (1964) (short)