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Pierre Fresnay (4 April 1897 – 9 January 1975) was a French stage and film actor. Born Pierre Jules Louis Laudenbach in Paris, France, he was encouraged by his uncle, the actor Claude Garry, to pursue a career in theater and film. During the 1920s, Fresnay appeared in many popular stage productions, most notably in the title role of Marcel Pagnol’s Marius (1929), which ran for over 500 performances. His first great screen role was as Marius in the 1931 film adaptation of the play of the same name. He played the role again in the next two parts of Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles Trilogy, Fanny (1932) and César (1936). He appeared in more than sixty films, eight of which were with Yvonne Printemps, with whom he lived since 1934. In that same year, he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In 1937 he portrayed the aristocratic French military officer Captain de Boeldieu in Jean Renoir's masterpiece La Grande Illusion.
In 1947 he played Vincent de Paul (namesake of the Vincent de Paul Society) in Monsieur Vincent, for which he won the Coupe Volpi for best actor at the Venice Film Festival. He also portrayed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer in Il est minuit, Docteur Schweitzer (1952).
A soldier in the French Army during World War I, he returned to his career a hero. However, under the German occupation of World War II, he worked for the Franco-German film company Continental, making Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau and other films. After the war, he was detained in prison while allegations of collaboration were investigated. After being held for six weeks, he was released as a result of a lack of evidence. Despite Fresnay's declarations that he worked in films to help save the French film industry in a period of crisis, the move damaged his popularity with the public.
Last years and death
In 1954, he published his memoirs, Je suis comédien (Eng. I am an actor). Fresnay continued to perform regularly in film and on stage through to the 1960s. In the 70s, he appeared in a few films for television. From then on, he lived together with the French actress and singer Yvonne Printemps for the rest of his life, co-directing the Théâtre de la Michodière in Paris with her until his death in 1975.
He died of respiratory problems, aged 77, on 9 January 1975, at Neuilly-sur-Seine and is interred there alongside Printemps in the local cemetery. In his autobiography (My Name Escapes Me), Alec Guinness states that Fresnay was his favorite actor.
Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest "I think my name is to be pronounced fray-nay. At least, it is the way I pronounce it." (Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.).
- Guinness, Alec (1998) My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, p.65, Penguin, ISBN 0140277455