Before he was synonymous with pantomime the world over, he used his entertainment skills to help save dozens of Jewish children during World War II.
Marcel Marceau was a French mime who, over the course of seven decades, perfected the art of silence and breathed new life into pantomime, an ancient performance art in which actors express themselves solely though bodily and facial movements. While he's famous for a prolific career as the chalk-faced clown Bip, he's perhaps less known for his bravery in helping save dozens of Jewish children during World War II.
To honor the silent actor's contribution to theater and humanity, Google dedicated its Doodle on Wednesday to Marceau on the centennial celebration of his birth. The animated Doodle depicts some of Marceau's most famous nonverbal character representations, battling to budge an unseen but immovable barrier, an effort he eventually abandons so he can relax, happily leaning his body on the invisible object.
Born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France, Marceau changed his name to avoid being identified as Jewish during the German occupation of France in World War II. His father, a kosher butcher, was arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died in 1944, when Marceau was 21.
Marceau credited Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration for becoming a mime, reportedly after his mother took him to see one of the silent-film great's movies at the age of 5. He put the skills he learned from Chaplin to use as a member of the French Resistance, entertaining Jewish children to keep them quiet as they were being hidden from the Gestapo and French police, who were rounding up Jews for deportation.
This skill literally saved the lives of dozens, maybe hundreds, of Jewish children. Marceau was recruited into the French Jewish Resistance by his cousin, Georges Loinger, a leader in the secret unit. Their mission was to smuggle children hiding in a French orphanage to the Swiss border, where safety awaited the children. Shepherding large groups of children was difficult, but he put his performance skills to good use during the multiple risky journeys he made with the children.
"The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him," Loinger, then 97, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency in 2007, following Marceau's death. "He had already begun doing performances in the orphanage, where he had met a mime instructor earlier on. The kids had to appear like they were simply going on vacation to a home near the Swiss border, and Marcel really put them at ease."
Marceau joined the French Army in 1944 and gave his first big public performance to 3,000 Allied troops following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. After studying mime in Paris following the war's end, Marceau embarked on a career that saw him touring at an exhaustive pace, giving more than 15,000 performances over the next 50 years.
He appeared in several movies over his career, but Marceau's most famous was portraying himself in the 1976 Mel Brooks comedy Silent Movie where he delivers the only spoken line in the movie's script: "No."
He continued his grueling touring schedule well into his later years, often giving more than 150 performances in his 80s. He died in 2007 at the age of 84.