Delon was born in 1935 to parents who divorced when he was four. A rebel practically from the get-go, he was continually expelled from boarding schools. He worked for a while, at age 14, in his father’s butcher shop, but eventually went off to join the French Navy. Even then, still the rabble-rouser, he claims to have spent almost one-fourth of his four years in the service in prison! He received a dishonorable discharge in 1956.
Working any number of odd jobs back in Paris, he somehow befriended actress Brigitte Auber (best known for her role opposite Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief) and went to the Cannes Film Festival with her. (Some sources list fellow French actor Jean-Claude Brialy, his lifelong – and gay - friend, as the person with whom he tagged along.) Notorious talent agent (at that time a scout for David O. Selznick) Henry Willson spotted Delon in a disco and arranged a screen test at Rome’s Cinecitta Studio for him. The test resulted in a contract offer, but Selznick’s film output was virtually nil (in fact, he never made another movie after this time) so Delon opted instead to stay in France and work there. The contract was dissolved.
After working in a few films, he was cast as Romy Schneider’s leading man in Christine and the pair became a couple off-screen as well. They were together several years, even working on stage in a play for several months, but eventually split up (though they would continue to work together occasionally.)
In 1960, he landed the role of Tom Ripley in Purple Noon (an adaptation of the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, later remade with Matt Damon and Jude Law.) The story of a parasitic young man who attaches himself to, and eventually wishes to become, a wealthy and popular playboy, was a major success. Shot in color, the cinematography played up Delon’s physical beauty (a number of scenes occurred on the water, affording glimpses of his toned body.) I have to scream it again: The EYES!
Delon did not continue to capitalize solely on his looks and physique, however, and swiftly went into the gangster film Rocco and his Brothers. It was the start of a series of films for him in which he would play gangster types, some bearing a degree of honor, others ruthless. Rocco was directed by esteemed director Luchino Visconti and he would later cast Delon in another of his important roles.
After working in several more French films and beginning to make a name for himself, Delon went back to Visconti for The Leopard, an epic film featuring Burt Lancaster as the patriarch of an aristocratic family that is affected by the upheavals taking place in mid-19th century Sicily.
Delon and Claudia Cardinale portray a young couple (described by Leonard Maltin as “close to the final word in romantic pairings”) caught up in the tumult. The lavish, lengthy film (cut down in many of the prints) features a famous 40 minute banquet sequence at the finale and is considered by many to be among the best films ever made.
Delon continued to work with some of the best directors that Europe had to offer and, along the way, was costarred with notable names such as Brigitte Bardot, Monica Vitti, Jean Gabin and even Jane Fonda. In 1964, he was placed in the sizeable ensemble of The Yellow Rolls Royce. Though the film starred Rex Harrison and Ingrid Bergman in vignettes, he was part of one that featured Shirley MacLaine and Art Carney. See if you don’t see a resemblance between Shirl and Renee Zellweger in these shots!
As a photographer who starts to fall for the moll of a big shot gangster who has left her in the care of one of his bodyguards, Delon was photographed in beautiful color. He was also, however, slathered down in tan body makeup (not that there’s anything wrong with that. It brought his eyes out even more!) One segment had him trotting around in a hilarious bathing suit that included a built-in white tank top, but somehow he remained sexy in it.
Next up, in 1965, he was teamed with Ann-Margret in Once a Thief. Filmed in San Francisco, Delon played a husband and father with a criminal past, having trouble staying on the straight and narrow when an old enemy of his tries to blame him for a murder. This was part of a fairly brief period in which Alain made films either in America or at least made in English.
In Lost Command, he joined Anthony Quinn and George Segal (as well as former Purple Noon costar Maurice Ronet and former The Leopard partner Cardinale.) It focused on the French occupation of Algeria. His military-oriented phase continued with Is Paris Burning?, one of the then-fashionable “spot the star” epics about German evacuation from Paris following their loss of WWII. Good or bad, the cast assembled for the film is indeed jaw dropping.
One of Alain’s loonier credits came in the Dean Martin western farce Texas Across the River. He played a titled Spaniard who winds up exchanging his fancy duds for deer-hide amidst a lot of fighting, hollering and, truth be told, mugging as he and Dino take on longhorn steers, Comanches and the US Cavalry.
1968 brought the film Spirits of the Dead, which featured three Edgar Allan Poe stories, each done by a famous director. Here he was re-teamed with Bardot and directed by Louis Malle. Roger Vadim and Federico Fellini directed the other stories. This was a busy time for him and he worked on many varied projects. In Girl on a Motorcycle, he played the sexy lover of Marianne Faithful, a wife who has run out on her milquetoast teacher husband in order to gear up in leather and zip off to a new life. Next came Honor Among Thieves. Here, Delon was paired with Charles Bronson as former French Foreign Legion officers who run into one another in civilian life, but at cross-purposes. The film’s most memorable sequence has the men locked in a sweltering room, requiring them to doff their shirts as suffocation looms.
Delon reunited with Romy Schneider (and Purple Noon’s Ronet again) for The Swimming Pool. This atmospheric, but slllooooww, movie about a love triangle that ends in murder mainly serves as an excuse to see Mr. D. and his lover in abbreviated swimwear (and this is not a complaint!) Publicity photos of Alain lounging in and around a pool have kept collectors busy for years since.
A scandal erupted in 1968 when a bodyguard of his was found dead in a trash receptacle at his house! He’d been shot in the head. Though Delon was out of the country at the time, he was grilled by authorities and there were murmurings of a whole mess of activity that included crime, drugs and orgies amongst various high-level French people, most of which was never made public.
Borsalino, released in 1970, was a smash hit in Europe. It told the story of two petty crooks in 1930s Italy who progress to more substantial organized crime. Delon took second billing to Jean-Paul Belmondo and the film seemed to have a sort of Newman and Redford spin to it, according to some viewers.
Around this time, Delon began producing some of his own films. Eventually, he would also dabble in writing and directing. It seemed almost a certainty, in the comparably intimate world of French and Italian filmmaking that he would work with many of the same costars time and again, but he was also amiable enough to be asked to work with major American stars more than once as well. An example of this is the Charles Bronson western drama Red Sun, which also featured Toshiro Mifune and Ursula Andress as part of its international cast.
In 1973, Delon played the head of a mysterious clinic in Shock Treatment. The British title for the film was Doctor in the Nude, which proved to be aptly descriptive! In the movie, Delon and several of his patients take a naked swim in the ocean and he showed all.
That same year, he re-teamed with Burt Lancaster in Scorpio, a cat and mouse thriller about two spies attempting to do each other in. Delon worked steadily in European films, eventually, as a favor to his son who loved the character, taking part in a remake of Zorro. This version was set in South America and had a rather goofy approach (the theme song is one of the craziest things you’ll ever hear), but Stanley Baker provided a decent antagonist and there’s a great, lengthy sword fight in the end.
Delon won much praise for his work in the film Mr. Klein, about an ice-cold art dealer during WWII who exploits the desperation of Jews by buying and selling their belongings at a huge profit until he discovers that he is in danger of being confused with another Mr. Klein, a Jew.
The film that first brought Alain Delon to my attention is the dreadful The Concorde: Airport ’79. Playing the pilot of the title vessel, a duty he shares with George Kennedy, Delon was part of a large cast that mixed international names such as Sylvia Kristel and Bibi Andersson with veterans like Martha Raye, Mercedes McCambridge and Eddie Albert and then tossed in people such as Charo and Jimmie Walker! And that only scratches the surface of the actors involved.
Hopefully, he was well paid for the positively awful piece of junk. He would have come out mostly unscathed since, as a pilot, he wasn’t subjected to some of the more goofy storylines that others endured, but for the fact that he and Kristel have a love scene in which he is actually required to look at her and say, “Your hair is my French fries…” Even with that, he was better off than “jazz singer” Monica Lewis, fretful mother Cicely Tyson or shellacked reporter John Davidson whose hair stays put when the plane spins upside down.
In the years since this, his final English-speaking film if I’m not mistaken, he has continued to work in the occasional movie, but also has written, directed, produced and has also created a successful line of merchandise including sunglasses and fragrances. He won the Cesar, France's answer to The Oscar, in 1984 after having been nominated twice previously.
In his early years, he was thought of as a French James Dean and was also called a Male Bardot, though I almost think of him more as France’s answer to Paul Newman. He had a lengthy career, sometimes taking part in fluff, but more often trying to expand his range and deemphasize his extraordinary looks. Like Newman, he evolved into a lean and handsome silver-haired gentleman who won the respect of his peers.
Married twice, involved with countless beautiful women and the father of several children, he led a colorful life that included, by his own admission, sex with other men, giving him a certain mystique and allure on top of his physical attributes and acting talent. His work in American films is spotty at best, but his work at home is a legacy that many people will continue to treasure.