Marcel Marceau was on the phone from San Francisco. Yes, that Marcel Marceau. The Frenchman who has made silence his stage for 40 years, creating butterflies and glass walls out of thin air and depicting man's journey from infancy to senility in four minutes flat, all without uttering a sound.
Does not the very idea seem somehow sacrilegious, as if it would reduce Bip--Marceau's clown-painted, jaunty-hatted Everyman--to nothing but a voice?
The offstage Marceau loves to talk. With a grueling, 37-city touring schedule that brings him to Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa on Monday, he was asked the inevitable question: Just how many tours are left in him?
"Retire? Of course not," the 64-year-old answered in softly accented English. "I do these shows sometimes 300 nights a year, but because I'm always performing, it keeps me creative and agile."
Evidently. His San Francisco Bay Area trek ends Sunday in Berkeley, followed by Monday's Costa Mesa appearance and then by shows in Palm Desert on Wednesday, Claremont on Thursday and Pasadena next weekend.
Marceau has performed in 65 countries, including the Soviet Union, Japan and China. But he professes a special affinity for the United States, which he has toured 40 times since his American debut in 1955.
He still draws raves for his chameleonic skills and his "mimo-dramas" of man as mere mortal--vain and cruel, joyful and childlike.
Monday's Segerstrom Hall appearance, his first ever in Orange County, is sure to include the Marceau classics his fans keep clamoring for: Bip the lion tamer, David the Goliath-killer, and that four-minute tour de force, "Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death."
Some critics have called these routines overly familiar, but Marceau offers no apologies. "There are people who say, 'Oh, he's back but he's always the same.' But half of my audiences are a whole younger generation that have never seen these."
In any case, Marceau said he has incorporated major new creations. "I've matured, so has Bip, so have our audiences. More (sketches) are darker, more frightening--they touch more on violence of these times, the nuclear threat, the oppressive technology."
"Bip Remembers," for example, may be Marceau's most sweeping commentary on the 20th Century, encompassing his memories of childhood, World War II and the Holocaust, and today's terrorism and computer society.
It is a deeply personal sequence. During World War II, Marceau joined the French underground and later served in the French Army. In 1944, his father was sent to Auschwitz. "We never saw him again," Marceau said.
Just as America has provided his most enthusiastic audiences, Hollywood's silent comedy era gave Marceau his artistic inspiration.
"I was 5 when I saw Charlie Chaplin for the first time," he recalled. The movie was "The Gold Rush," and it "transfixed me. He was so beautiful to watch, so touching and human." Soon after seeing it, Marceau formed a neighborhood kids' troupe that did Little Tramp imitations.
"All the great silent clowns--Harry Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd--captured for us the essence of life. But none," Marceau asserted, "were as pure, as complete the mime masters, as Chaplin and Buster Keaton."
One of Marceau's great regrets is that he never met Keaton. "I had a chance in the early 1950s when (Keaton) was with a circus" in Paris, Marceau recalled. "It was so sad because he wasn't great anymore, like he was in his young films. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his films, how he inspired me. But I was very young, and not well-known, and I didn't dare try to see him."
Marceau did meet Chaplin, though, at the Paris airport in 1967. "He was passing through. He was 78 years old then, but his children had seen me and he knew of my work. We talked a bit, and I did a little mime of his Tramp--and he did too."
Critics have found parallels between Marceau's stage work and the films of his two idols: the poetic grace and pathos of Chaplin, the gravity-defying, fate-stirring surrealism of Keaton.
"I am very flattered, but the resemblances can be only general," said Marceau, who studied with the great French mime Etienne Decroux in the late 1940s. "Movies and theater deal with different elements of time and space. The theater is less real, more stylized, more invisible and illusionary. Bip is the Little Tramp's younger brother, but they exist in far different milieus."
Marceau also admires such American screen and television comics as Red Skelton, whom he calls "a very great clown," and Jerry Lewis, whose movies are hailed in France but generally are ignored by critics in the United States. "I know many Americans don't like (Lewis)," Marceau said. "They think he has made fun of them and mocked the American spirit. No. I think he reflects the absurdities and stupidities of all people. Yes, his characters are crazy and irrational, and he goes overboard--yet that's exactly why we love him."
Meanwhile, his homages to Chaplin and Keaton continue. In the works, he said, is a feature film called "Pinporello," which will try to evoke the glories of the silent-comic generation.
The story is Marceau's. It's about a struggling Italian street mime and "his encounters with a little girl, his own past and the realities of life." It is, Marceau says, a lot like "Limelight," Chaplin's highly personal film about an aging, forgotten music-hall comedian.
As the "Pinporello" street mime, Marceau will talk on screen! Actually, it's nothing he hasn't done before on TV and in movies here and there. And he'll keep it to a minimum; most of it will be voice-overs expressing the character's "inner thoughts." Through most of the movie, we'll see Marceau as we've always seen him, summoning images that are sublimely silent, impeccably defined and universally human.
Monday, 8 p.m.
Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa
Information: (714) 556-ARTS