PARIS — French actor Michel Serrault, whose hit performance as a transvestite in the film and stage versions of "La Cage aux Folles" (Birds of a Feather) catapulted him to international stardom, has died. He was 79.
Serrault died Sunday of cancer at his home in Honfleur, in northwestern France, said his priest, the Rev. Alain Maillard de La Morandais.
Serrault appeared in more than 130 films during a career that spanned half a century.
After debuting as a comic actor, he became one of France's most versatile stars, playing a serial killer, a grizzled farmer, a crooked banker and an accused rapist.
"I'm against those who only want to entertain," Serrault said in 2002. "I am very happy with all the roles I've played, and I take responsibility for them all."
Born Jan. 24, 1928, in Brunoy, south of Paris, Serrault initially set his sights on the priesthood, briefly entering a seminary.
He dropped out, he later explained, because of the vow of chastity.
After studying acting in Paris, Serrault began his stage career playing in cabarets.
He made his film debut in 1954 in Jean Loubignac's "Ah! Les Belles Bacchantes," which was released as "Peek-a-Boo" in the United States. His first big break came in 1972, with a leading role in Pierre Tchernia's "Le Viager" ("The Life Annuity").
Speaking Monday on French television, Tchernia called Serrault "perhaps the greatest French actor," saying he gave to his profession "all his talent, all his strength, all his humor, all his affection."
It was his role as flamboyant gay nightclub owner Albin Mougeotte, also known as Zaza Napoli, in the theater and film versions of the mega-hit "La Cage aux Folles" that catapulted him to fame worldwide. His performance in director Edouard Molinaro's 1978 movie won him the first of three Cesar awards, the French equivalent of the Oscar.
Serrault remained active in films through his late 70s. Among his final films was Pierre Javaux's 2006 "Les Enfants du Pays" (Hometown Boys), about the role of African soldiers in World War II.
De La Morandais, who performed the actor's last rites, said he told Serrault to "go make God laugh; he really needs it because his job isn't easy."
"That made him crack a smile. It was very much in the spirit of Michel Serrault," the priest said.
Serrault is survived by his wife, Juanita, and daughter, Nathalie.
He is to be buried Thursday in Honfleur.