Eddie Constantine; U.S. Actor Was Star in Europe
Europe mourned the death of one of its favorite American actors this week. But except for a handful of dedicated foreign film buffs, the death of Los Angeles-born Eddie Constantine went largely unnoticed in the United States.
Newspapers across Europe carried long stories detailing the film career of Constantine, 75, who died Feb. 25 at his home in Wiesbaden, Germany, reportedly of a heart attack. The death was announced by a German television station.
From his first role in a French film 40 years ago, Constantine came to embody the quintessential American tough guy in more than 70 European movies, including films directed by Jean-Luc Godard in France and Rainer Werner Fassbinder of Germany.
In Europe, his best-known role was as FBI Agent Lemmy Caution in a series of French movies based on tongue-in-cheek crime books by British author Peter Cheyney (“Hot Lips--Cold Steel”; “In Blonde Satan’s Spell”). But Constantine remained virtually unknown and unrecognized in the land of his birth.
His fame grew in a post-World War II Europe when there was a passion for practically everything American, from cigarettes to stereotypical film heavies. Constantine, fluent in French and German and trained in opera, was not nearly as hard-edged as any of the American actors who pioneered the roles, but his exaggerated imitation--Bogart through an Old World filter--pleased European audiences.
In real life, said director Marcel Ophuls, who worked with the actor on a low-budget 1965 French film entitled “Feu a Volonte,” Constantine was not much of a tough guy and came to feel imprisoned by his typecasting. “He was soft and shy,” remembered Ophuls, “the opposite of the image he had on the screen.”
Constantine was born in 1917 as Edward Constantinowsky, the son of Russian immigrants living in Los Angeles. At 19 he traveled to Vienna to study opera. In 1949, he married the French ballerina Helene Russel, the first of his three wives. His singing talent landed him jobs as a cabaret performer and caught the attention of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, who briefly adopted the American as one of her proteges, getting him a part in a musical comedy that was one of his few departures from the tough-guy movie roles.
But after his first role as the FBI’s Caution in a 1952 film, “La Mome Vert-de-Gris,” Constantine never again shed the screen image of a hard-drinking, tough-talking man of action. After a run of successful movies in the 1950s and early 196Os, including an important role as a futuristic Lemmy Caution in the 1965 Godard classic “Alphaville,” Constantine faded from sight in France and began working principally in Germany, including roles as television detectives. In 1978 he married Maja Faber-Janssen and settled permanently in Wiesbaden.
In a interview with the German news service DPA, Constantine claimed to have made 133 films, “most of them, in fact, terrible.” He complained about the synchronization of the fight scenes in his Lemmy Caution films, fights so unrealistic they often caused the audiences to roar with laughter.
“I had good directors but the scripts were always the same,” he said in an interview with the popular German tabloid Bild am Sonntag. “Only the women changed.”