The Quiet Man

On the eve of his last American tour, Marcel Marceau emerges as one sweet-talking mime

I have no idea how many degrees of separation there are between Marcel Marceau and Kevin Bacon. I have heard it rumored, however, that there is only one between the superstar of mime and Michael Jackson's moonwalk (that link being San Francisco street mime Robert Shield's imitation of Marceau's "Walking Against the Wind.") The world's preeminent mime doesn't tout his link to Jacko--though it strikes me that Marceau's home country and Neverland are probably both headed for rogue-state listing on the Axis of Evil. But in a recent phone interview from a hotel room somewhere in Florida--a few weeks before his North American farewell tour stops in Minneapolis--Marceau does have a lifetime of war stories to share. In the same charming cocktail party lilt that he uses to describe performing for the likes of Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper, and Danny Kaye during the golden age of Hollywood, he mentions studying painting at Limoges during the Nazi occupation. He spent his off hours, he explains, making fake IDs as a civilian in the underground until he was old enough to fight. Marceau reflects upon the work he did during this time, saying broadly, "Every century has war and even through war, artists continue. This is what men have given to the world to make it peaceful. When you don't go back to the roots of the past, you have a very fragile future." There is a pause following this statement in which neither of us mentions current events.

While we don't get around to talking about the alleged Great Dictator of our time, Marceau does detail a chance encounter with Charlie Chaplin, the mime's inspiration and role model. Many years ago, in a busy airport, Marceau spied Chaplin and family waiting to board their plane, and approached them. After the initial hellos and obligatory Little Tramp impersonations ("I imitated him, he imitated me imitating him, you see?"), Chaplin's flight was announced. Feeling panic at not having time to express his appreciation and admiration, Marceau bent and kissed Chaplin's hand. He continues, "When I looked up, he had tears in his eyes. And now I understand. Chaplin was reaching 80. In being recognized by the next generation, Chaplin knew exactly that you loved his work. Every time you made a show, you spoke about Chaplin."

Before there was Gene Simmons: Master mime Marcel Marceau in whiteface
Roger Pic
Before there was Gene Simmons: Master mime Marcel Marceau in whiteface

Now that Marceau himself is inching up on 80, thoughts of the next generation are very much on his mind. During his career he's played to at least three generations of theatergoers. He explains, "I have to show the next generation the rules of the art form. That is why I continue to tour."

Yet lest all this talk of classic work, history, and legacy leave you picturing Marceau as a pontificating, romantic old geezer, I will share the fact that halfway through our conversation, I found myself flirting shamelessly, blushing, and at one point even thinking, "I wonder if he has any children. I wonder if he wants any children."

Certainly, I wouldn't be the first woman to be charmed by the French or sweet-talked by a mime, but it's more likely I fell prey to the infectious vivacity, curiosity, creativity...and oh heck...let's just say it...joie de vivre, that has charmed 55 years' worth of audiences. It's no doubt the same remarkable well-being that recently prompted the United Nations Second World Assembly on Aging to appoint him "goodwill ambassador." Marceau is quite grateful for his health and chalks it up to "a gift I received from the godly," though he seriously adds, "also, I never quit working."

The reason behind the longevity of Marceau's career may be that he offers audiences something they can't get anywhere else. He offers poetry--literal and figurative--on the stage, and masterfully refined physical-theater skills. Marceau recalls that in the days before his legendary status he found himself thinking, "What could I bring to the stage that America doesn't have?" "Ah," he remembers answering himself, "the art of silence. And, they can see that in silence I carry the invisible." As he shares this there is a pause in which he seems to be re-asking the question--and coming up with the same answer.

 
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