The French actor Jean Martin, who has died aged 86, was the last survivor of the four leads in the original cast of the first production of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) at the 230-seat Théâtre de Babylone, on the Left Bank in Paris, in January 1953.
The tall and cadaverous-looking Martin, in a grey fright wig, played Lucky as a shocking image of human misery, trembling from head to foot throughout his long monologue and dripping saliva. His disturbing interpretation was inspired by watching patients with severe cases of Parkinson’s disease at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. When he explained to Beckett that he was playing Lucky as if he were suffering from Parkinson’s, Beckett mentioned that his mother had had the disease. The large, battered suitcase Lucky carried had been found in a dustbin a few days before.
The success of the play, in which “nothing happens, twice”, according to the critic Vivian Mercier in the Irish Times, gathered momentum during its first run, not least because of the controversy it created. One night, the curtain had to be brought down after Lucky’s monologue because a group of well-dressed spectators were whistling and hooting derisively. Roger Blin, who directed the play and portrayed Pozzo, Lucky’s slave-driving master, teasingly described Lucky as a “one-line part”, albeit 700 words long, but it became Martin’s signature role, staying with him for the rest of his life.
Martin was born in the Berry region in central France but grew up in Biarritz, where his father worked for a chic furrier. At the start of the second world war, he went into hiding to avoid being sent to do manual labour in Germany. He later joined the resistance, as did Beckett. After the war, he got involved in the avant garde, appearing in plays by Arthur Adamov and Eugène Ionesco.
For his second play in French, Fin de Partie (Endgame) – which had its world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 3 April 1957 as part of a cultural event called French Fortnight – Beckett chose Martin and Blin again. Blin (who also directed) played the paralysed and blind Hamm and Martin was Clov, who never sits down and who is constantly expressing a desire to leave. Beckett once explained that whereas in his first play, everyone expects the arrival of Godot, in the second, they will be expecting the departure of Clov. When the production moved from London to the small Studio des Champs-Élysées, Beckett attended a few rehearsals. “Beckett does not want his actors to act,” Martin explained. “He wants them to do only what he tells them. When they try to act, he becomes very angry.”
In 1960, with the Algerian war raging, Martin was one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the 121, which called on the government to recognise the war as a legitimate struggle for independence, denouncing the use of torture by the army and calling for conscientious objectors to be respected by the authorities. Such were the times that Martin, who was performing at the state-funded Théâtre National Populaire, had his contract annulled. He was also banned from radio and television. Finding it difficult to secure work, he was forced to go to Helsinki, where he was offered an acting job.
Six years later, he was the only professional actor in Gillo Pontecorvo’s extraordinary The Battle of Algiers (1966), in which he brilliantly played Colonel Mathieu, the tough, chain-smoking paratroop commander entrusted by the government with putting down the revolt. Martin’s convincing performance is the more chilling as he plays the colonel as a man just doing his job, even if it involves torture. The film was banned for some years in France, and the torture scenes cut on its first release in the UK.
Martin had been in films since 1956, when he had a bit part as a thief in Jean Delannoy’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which starred Anthony Quinn. He continued to appear in small parts, notably in Jacques Rivette’s first feature, Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), which was made over a period of two years because of lack of funds, and in Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (The Nun, 1966), which was initially banned in France for its anti-clericalism.
Many of the directors he worked for were friends, such as Rivette, Alain Resnais (Je T’aime, Je T’Aime, 1968), Alain Robbe-Grillet, for whom he played a sadistic priest in the erotic fantasy Glissements Progressifs du Plaisir (Successive Slidings of Pleasure, 1974), and Roberto Rossellini, in whose last feature, The Messiah (1975), he was Pontius Pilate.
For his friend Beckett, he played Krapp’s Last Tape at the Théâtre Recamier in 1970. In the interests of immediacy and truth, Martin asked if he could operate the tape recorder himself, which was usually controlled from the wings. This seemed unnecessarily risky to Beckett (who directed), but with a duplicate recorder ready to cut in if anything should go wrong, he agreed. Nothing did, and Martin’s solo performance accrued excellent reviews.
However, all his work with Beckett and other avant gardists was nothing to the exposure he gained from his role in the quasi-comic spaghetti western My Name is Nobody (1973), third billed after Terence Hill and Henry Fonda. Martin played a crooked, snake-eyed mine owner called Sullivan who hires a band of gunslingers to eliminate Fonda.
He lived alone for years in an apartment in the rue de Lille, in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. He said he never moved because of the thousands of books he possessed. At the time of his death from cancer, he was working on a book about Beckett.
• Jean Martin, actor, born 6 March 1922; died 2 February 2009
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