His name might not ring a bell to Americans, but to French people, Louis de Funès is as iconic as can be. He was known for his energetic delivery of lines, frenzied facial expressions, and wacky physical humor. His films earned cult status and remain popular even to this day, thanks to his unique approach to comedy and his ability to create unforgettable characters.
Louis de Funès appeared in more than 140 films, and among the classic French comedies "Fantômas," "Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez," "La Traversée de Paris," "Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob," and "La Grande Vadrouille." Even after his death in 1983, his films continue to be broadcast on TV and loved by new generations.
Born on 31 July 1914 in Courbevoie, France, Louis Germain David de Funes de Galarza was the son of Spanish immigrants. Growing up, he was already interested in the world of entertainment, and at the age of 14, he began performing in theaters as a pianist. He eventually joined an orchestra that performed on cruise ships, allowing him to visit countries around the world, where he further honed his skills.
However, acting was always his true passion. At the age of 21, he debuted in theater productions and also began appearing in short films. With his formal acting education earned at the Tania Balachova school in Paris, he eventually became a prominent actor in the French theater scene and began attracting attention in the film industry.
Like for most artists, WWII mostly put a pause on his acting career. When the war started, Louis de Funès, 25, was not drafted to fight due to his size (5"4) and because of his family medical history, as his dad passed away from tuberculosis. He worked in construction during the war, but he also found himself creating cabaret for the troops showcasing his talent for imitations and slapstick comedy. While studying piano during the war, he fell in love with the secretary of the music school he attended, Jeanne Barthelémy de Maupassant, who, despite her name, wasn't a descendant of the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant.
Louis de Funès was already 40 years old when he finally hit it big. His breakthrough role came in 1964 when he played the policeman Ludovic Cruchot in “Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez.” In the movie, he portrayed a bumbling police officer full of quirks and tics that gets under his colleagues' skin. The film’s immense box office success led to several sequels, which solidified de Funès' status as a top draw in French cinema.
The following year, his superb comedic timing was once again showcased in "La Grande Vadrouille," one of the highest-grossing films in French cinema history. The film saw him portray the conductor of an orchestra who gets stuck behind enemy lines during World War II. The film was such a hit that it was distributed worldwide, making de Funès an international sensation. Learn more about Louis de Funès' rise to fame in the documentary "Louis de Funès, champion du box office".
With so many memorable films in his oeuvre, picking a single favorite seems almost impossible. However, several movies stand out in highlighting his comedy bona fides. "Le Corniaud" (1965) and "La Grande Vadrouille" (1966) are two films that continue to be beloved by fans of the legendary French actor.
"Le Corniaud" was particularly significant for the French actor because it marked his collaboration with director Gérard Oury, a partnership that proved to be fruitful for both artists. In the film, de Funès plays a man who tries to swindle a rich man while he is taking a trip. The hilarity that ensues is classic de Funès, with his usual hyperactive delivery of lines and animated facial expressions.
"La Grande Vadrouille" was a tour de force performance that cemented de Funès as a master of comedic timing. The loose storyline allowed him to showcase his talents for physical humor, mime and witty one-liners, and the film became one of the highest-grossing in France at the time. Making France laugh about the war was no small challenge and Louis de Funès and Bourvil could have pulled it off.
The "Fantômas" series made the French actor an even bigger star and cemented his status as a comedy icon. Based on the classic novels, the series saw de Funès play Inspector Juve, a police detective constantly on the chase of the mysterious criminal mastermind, Fantômas. De Funès’ comedic flair added a fresh layer to the otherwise grim source material, creating a fast-paced and hilarious movie series that had audiences hooked.
L'aile ou la cuisse, which translates to "The Wing or the Thigh," was released in 1976 and is still today one of the most played movies on French TV. The film casts Louis de Funes as Charles Duchemin, a restaurant critic who becomes embroiled in a feud with a food industry magnate. For the first and only time Louis De Funès shared the screen with stand-up comedian Coluche. The film was a box-office success, cementing de Funès' place in French cinema history.
De Funès and director Gérard Oury worked together on several films, and their partnership was highly successful. Their films resulted in commercial and critical acclaim. Oury’s direction relied on de Funès’ natural talent, and in return, de Funès helped Oury translate his vision onto the big screen.
Their most significant collaboration was "La Grande Vadrouille," which became one of the highest-grossing films in French cinema history. They also worked together on La Folie des Grandeurs, Le Corniaud and The Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.
Despite his advanced age, de Funès continued to work on films until his health deteriorated in the early 1980s. Some of his later films include “Les Gendarmes et les Extra-terrestres,” “Le Gendarme et les Gendarmettes,” and “L'Avare.” He made his final appearance in "Le Gendarme et les Gendarmettes" in 1982, playing the character of Ludovic Cruchot for the last time.
Louis de Funès passed away on January 27, 1983, from a heart attack. He was given full state honors and was posthumously awarded the Legion of Honor. His death was a significant loss to French cinema, but his legacy continues to endure.
De Funès' impact on French cinema is immeasurable, and he remains one of the most beloved actors in the country's history. French comedies have been influenced by his unique approach, his comic timing, and his ability to create annoying yet lovable characters.
Don't miss the documentary in French with English subtitles "Funès, le rire éternel" available on TV5MONDEplus to learn more about the fascinating career and legacy of France's most beloved comedic actor.
If you don't live in France, where his movies are holiday classics, you might have trouble finding Louis de Funès' movies...until now! Starting in November, the platform TV5MONDE Cinema on Demand will have 10 French movies with Louis de Funès available until February 2024. French cult classics like "Le Grand restaurant", "La folie des grandeurs", "Oscar", "Les grandes vacances" and "Hibernatus" will be among the movies with Louis de Funès available on TV5MONDE.