Michel Piccoli, an actor whose quiet intensity and mature sensuality made him a fixture of French cinema for more than a half-century, died on May 12, it was announced on Monday. He was 94.
The cause was a stroke, according to his wife, Ludivine Clerc, who confirmed his death in a short statement issued on her behalf by Gilles Jacob, former president of the Cannes Film Festival.
He occasionally appeared in American films, albeit in projects in which he played characters with French accents. He was a Soviet spy in France who commits suicide in Alfred Hitchcock's "Topaz" (1969), and an opera-loving croupier in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City" (1980). "The urbane Michel Piccoli appears in a tiny role that he turns into a memorable cameo, that of a casino manager who, on the side, runs the croupier school," Vincent Canby wrote in his review in The New York Times.
A veteran of the French stage, Piccoli also had more than 40 feature films and television movies on his résumé. He was in his late 30s when he starred in Jean-Luc Godard's acclaimed drama "Contempt" ("Le Mépris") in 1963, playing Brigitte Bardot's unhappy husband, a screenwriter who sells out his talent and loses his wife to an American producer.
The film began with a bedroom scene between Piccoli and Bardot, in which his character declares, "I love you totally, tenderly, tragically." More than three decades later, critic Phillip Lopate described this star-making performance as having registered "with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual turned hack who feels himself outmanned."
French audiences had largely discovered Piccoli a year earlier, in "Le Doulos," a gangster film noir in which his character is shot dead. American fans came to know him from the films of the great European directors, particularly Luis Buuel.
His work with Buuel included "Belle de Jour" (1967), in which Piccoli played a sinister, lecherous aristocrat who encourages a bored young Catherine Deneuve to go into prostitution and become a gangster's lover by day while remaining the prim housewife of a handsome, young physician by night.
Piccoli also collaborated with. Buuel on "Diary of a Chambermaid" (1964), "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972) and "The Phantom of Liberty" (1974).
He also worked with directors like Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Costa-Gavras, Alain Resnais and Agns Varda. "La Grande Bouffe" ("The Big Feast," 1973), directed by Marco Ferreri, was probably one of Piccoli's best-known films to American moviegoers. The movie was a satire about four men determined to eat themselves to death during an orgiastic villa weekend.
In addition to Bardot and Deneuve, Piccoli's list of co-stars included Anouk Aimée, Stéphane Audran, Leslie Caron, Jeanne Moreau, Natasha Parry, Dominique Sanda and Romy Schneider.
Piccoli's career barely slowed in later life. Even as the likes of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo — French actors a decade younger than he — began to work less, Piccoli seemed to pick up his pace. He appeared in three films and a miniseries in 2012, when he was 86, and he was named best actor at the 2012 David di Donatello awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars, for his performance in Nanni Moretti's "We Have a Pope" ("Habemus Papam"), in which he portrayed a cardinal reluctant to accept the ultimate promotion.
Piccoli was also nominated four times for the César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for his performances in "Strange Affair"; "Dangerous Moves" (1984), the story of an aging chess master; "May Fools" (1990), about a widowed vineyard manager at the time of the Paris student riots; and "La Belle Noiseuse" (1991), playing a painter with a creative block, in which he stars alongside Emmanuelle Béart.
Jacques Daniel Michel Piccoli was born on Dec. 27, 1925, in Paris into a musical family. His father, Henri Piccoli, was an Italian violinist, and his mother, Marcelle Piccoli, was a French pianist. He received a bachelor's degree from the Collge Sainte-Barbe in Paris.