Born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, on March 22, 1923, he came from a lively Jewish family with socialist ideals and an artistic bent. His extended family included many musicians and dancers. By the age of 7, Marceau was entertaining neighborhood friends with his comic talent. "I discovered I could make people laugh and cry without speaking," says Marceau, who wasn't "doing mime." He was, in fact, imitating Charlie Chaplin. (Indeed, Marceau's thickly lined eyes and mouth and black-and-white silhouette evoke Chaplin's silent-screen image.)
When Marceau was 15, his life unraveled. On the day France entered World War II, his family was given two hours to pack. Marceau and his older brother, Alain, fled to temporary safety in Limoges. Alain became a leader of the local French underground, and young Marcel joined in. To hide their Jewish origins, the brothers changed their family name to the solidly patriotic Marceau, a famous general in the French Revolution.
Marceau's wartime activities presaged his later artistic role as illusionist. Using red crayons and black ink, he altered the ages of French youths' identity cards, proving them too young to be sent to labor camps. And later, masquerading as a Boy Scout director leading campers on a hike in the Alps, he saved hundreds of Jewish children's lives by smuggling them into Switzerland. No surprise, then, that his most affecting works -- notably "The Trial," "The Cage" and "Bip Remembers," which recounts Marceau's own wartime experiences -- are highly political.
In 1944, his father, a kosher butcher, was arrested by the Gestapo and murdered in Auschwitz concentration camp.
After the war, he enrolled in 1946 as a student in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris, where he studied with teachers like Charles Dullin and the great master, Etienne Decroux, who had also taught Jean-Louis Barrault. The latter noticed Marceau's exceptional talent, made him a member of his company, and cast him in the role of Arlequin in the pantomime entitled Baptiste - which Barrault himself had interpreted in the world famous film Les Enfants du Paradis. Marceau's performance won him such acclaim that he was encouraged to present his first "mimodrama", called Praxitele and the Golden Fish, at the Bernhardt Theatre that same year. The acclaim was unanimous and Marceau's career as a mime was firmly established.
In 1947, Marceau created "Bip", the clown, who in his striped pullover and battered, beflowered silk opera hat — signifying the fragility of life — has become his alter-ego, even as Chaplin's "Little Tramp" became that star's major personality. Bip's misadventures with everything from butterflies to lions, on ships and trains, in dance-halls or restaurants, were limitless.
His biggest inspiration was Charlie Chaplin. Marceau, in turn, inspired countless young performers — Michael Jackson borrowed his famous "moonwalk" from a Marceau sketch, "Walking Against the Wind."
Marceau performed tirelessly around the world until late in life, never losing his agility, never going out of style. In one of his most poignant and philosophical acts, "Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death," he wordlessly showed the passing of an entire life in just minutes.
Single-handedly, Marceau revived the art of mime.
As he aged, Marceau kept on performing at the same level, never losing the agility that made him famous.
"If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on," he told The AP in an interview in 2003. "You have to keep working."
Marcel Marceau died today in Paris. He was 84.
sources: AP, Wiki, Salon