THE COMEDIAN Jean Lefebvre usually managed to appear more English than French. He might almost have been called a French Geordie, though he was in every sense a typical Frenchman - he came from the far north- east corner of France, from Valenciennes. The proximity of England just across the Channel effaced all Latin traces. He was a chips and mussels man with plenty of salt and vinegar, no passionate connoisseur of Mediterranean cuisine.
He made me think of a character in Dickens or Thackeray, for he had a distinct Victorian look - the Artful Dodger in person. He could have played Sancho Panza to a Don Quixote of Louis de Funes - the comic genius with whom he appeared in several farcical farragos; or a boozing mate - Bardolph or Pistol - to a Falstaff of the gargantuan clown and truly immense actor Michel Galabru, another of his real-life and on-screen cronies in Jean Girault's preposterous series of "Gendarme" farces (the delight of French working-class Saturday-night audiences, and still one of the popular mainstays of interminable television weekends and summer vacation diversions). He could also have played the Gravedigger in Hamlet, emerging from the tomb with a coal-miner's black-faced grin.
Lefebvre often played the shrewd innocent who gets into hot water - Buster Keaton without the scary acrobatics, moon-faced Harry Langdon in his usual sentimental pickles, Stan Laurel whose long- jawed, tight-lipped resignation hid abysses of despair. They called Jean Lefebvre "le tendre pitre" - the soft-hearted stooge. Audiences loved his randy adolescent's sidelong off-screen look of slightly panic-stricken bliss in the clutches of a statuesque but indulgently motherly hoofer. They loved his big, black, mournful spaniel's eyes and nervous, slightly rat-like smile, his modest, squeaky voice.
In fact, he had an operatic voice: he had won second prize in Paris at the Opera Comique, where he studied for a while. But his subsequent drama teacher, Rene Simon, took him down a few pegs when he informed Lefebvre that his stage acting voice was too big for his body. The effect was unintentionally ludicrous, so he was advised to stick to light comedy.
In his schooldays, he was such a skinny child, he was mercilessly bullied by big boys until he learned to play the fool, displacing their scorn for his pitiful physique and provoking their affectionate laughter at his clownish wit. That was how he discovered he had the makings of an actor.
At first he studied acting at the Conservatoire de Valenciennes, then in Lille and Paris, where among his fellow students in Rene Simon's classes his close friends were future stars - Robert Hussein and Pierre Mondy among them. He made his debut at the Cabaret Amiral, then played a small part in Robert Dhery's first great success, La Plume de ma tante ("The Pen of My Aunt"), in …