MONTREAL - Michael Sarrazin, the understated star of films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Flim-Flam Man, died Sunday, April 17 in Montreal after a brief, quiet battle with cancer, surrounded by his family. He was 70 years old.
Sarrazin was born Jacques Michel André Sarrazin in Quebec City in 1940. The family moved to Montreal, first to Frontenac St. in the east end, and then to Notre Dame de Grâce, where Sarrazin attended Loyola High School.
“He wasn’t a particularly good student,” his brother Pierre Sarrazin recalled, “but he was a great actor, and the Jesuits and fellow students loved him. His first high school role was in The Bishop’s Candlestick, and he was very upset when he came offstage and everyone in the crowd was laughing. He thought they were laughing at him. They were laughing with him.”
As tributes poured in, love was a word often repeated. “I loved my brother dearly,” said Pierre, a producer and writer for television and film who worked with Michael on the 1993 George Mihalka hit comedy La Florida. “We were an ordinary family that happened to have a star in it. We knew it from an early age.”
“He was the greatest, most wonderful soul," said Daniaile Jarry, who was a dialogue and singing coach to Sarrazin on La Florida, and was shocked to hear of his passing. “He had a great passion for life. We had so much fun on the set. It was a coup for us. He was working with his brother, whom he loved, and was working in French, something he hadn’t done in years.”
The veteran director Mihalka, still absorbing the news, said, “I have had the honour of not only working with Michael but being a friend for almost 20 years. This is truly a sad time for all of us in the Canadian film community.
“Michael was one of the most talented, generous and committed actors I have ever worked with. He never stopped surprising me with his wit, charm, and, above all, his humility and simple decency. Montreal and the world have lost a truly outstanding man. Rest well, my dear friend, you have enriched the lives of all of us.”
Sarrazin’s longtime agent Michael Oscars said in a statement from Toronto: “Michael was an actor of great sensitivity and unparalleled grace. He was also an impeccable raconteur, valued client and a great friend. It is a very great loss.
Sarrazin was one of the last actors to come up through the old studio system, signing with Universal in 1965. After an indifferent start in television and TV movies of the week, his true talent as a soulful reflection of the tumultuous 1960s was revealed opposite singer-actor Bobby Darin in the post-Civil War drama Gunfight in Abilene, in 1967, and as the reluctant apprentice to grifter George C. Scott in The Flim-Flam Man, that same year.
Work came fast and furious. He played a tenderfoot Confederate soldier in 1968’s Journey to Shiloh with fellow Hollywood rookie Harrison Ford, and was nominated for a Golden Globe as a slacker surfer in The Sweet Ride (1968) opposite Jacqueline Bisset. They began a relationship that lasted 14 years.
Sarrazin’s career peaked the next year as he provided quiet, essential support for partner Jane Fonda in the harrowing dancing marathon They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The film was nominated for nine Oscars, but only Gig Young won for best supporting actor.
His critical run continued when he played Paul Newman’s misunderstood half-brother in Sometimes a Great Notion, Newman’s criminally underseen 1970 adaptation of novelist Ken Kesey’s great logging yarn. Henry Fonda and Lee Remick co-starred. Sarrazin worked more or less continuously thereafter, in films as varied as The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Gumball Rally (1976), Joshua Then and Now (1985), Bullet to Beijing (1995), and 2008’s The Christmas Choir.
Claude Chamberlan, co-founder and chief programmer of Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinéma, wrote in an email: “Funny, only three days ago, I was talking to friends about the very discreet Michael Sarrazin, the only Hollywood film star living around Boulevard Saint-Laurent. I saw him many times strolling the Main and always respected his incognito.
“I will always remember him in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a film we showed at the end of our 250-hour film marathon in 1992, celebrating the 100th birthday of cinema.”
In the beginning of the 21st century, Sarrazin relocated from the West Coast to Montreal to be closer to his beloved daughters Catherine and Michelle, organizational pillars of the editorial department of the Gazette for many years.
“We had a 3,000-mile relationship with him for so long, it was great to be able to rediscover him,” said Michelle bravely, shortly after his passing. “He was a great, loving dad. He really loved us, and we really loved him. We’re so glad we had these years together.”
A service will be held in Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Basilica, 460 René Lévesque Blvd. W. on April 26 at 10:30 a.m.
SARRAZIN, Michael (Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin)
Born: 5/22/1940, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Died: 4/17/2011, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Michael Sarrazin's westerns - actor:
The Virginian (TV) - 1965 (Sam Coates)
Gunfight in Abilene - 1967 (Cord Decker)
A Man Called Gannon - 1968 (Jess Washburn)
Journey to Shiloh - 1958 (Miller Nalls)
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean - 1972 (Rose's husband)