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Fernando Rey, 76; Debonair Film Star

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fernando Rey, the suave, debonair international actor from Spain best known for his roles in the films of surrealist director Luis Bunuel and as a drug lord in “The French Connection,” died Wednesday in Madrid. He was 76.

Rey, who appeared in more than 150 films made in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States over half a century, died at his home of bladder cancer.

In recent years, Rey had served as president of the Spanish Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences.

The impeccably tailored and bearded actor, once described by “French Connection” producer Phil D’Antoni as “the last of the Continental guys,” achieved perhaps his greatest success in the 1970s when he had already turned 50. Rey portrayed the elegantly evil villain opposite Gene Hackman in “The French Connection” in 1971 and starred in Bunuel’s “Tristana” in 1970 and “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in 1972. He won the best actor award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for his role in “Elisa, My Life.”

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“Perhaps it is a pity that my success came so late in life,” he told The Times in Madrid in 1973. “It might have been better to have been successful while young, like El Cordobes in the bullring. Then your life is all before you to enjoy it.

“Still, adversity, too, teaches you how to savor life--like a cup of coffee sip by sip.”

Born Fernando Casado Arambillet in La Coruna, Rey studied to be an architect--but the Spanish Civil War intervened. He and his father, an army colonel, fought on the side of the Loyalists, and by the end of the war were impoverished.

“I became a movie extra just to get money to eat,” he told The Times in 1987. “I never had that ambition to be an actor, but it was like a chain reaction. One day a director asked me if I could say a line, and I did it.”

Soon Rey was dubbing Spanish voices in foreign films, beginning with Tyrone Power in “Lloyds of London.” Later he dubbed Laurence Olivier in all the Briton’s Shakespearean films, with Olivier becoming Rey’s unknowing acting tutor.

Rey portrayed romantic leads in Spanish films in the 1940s and 1950s and earned his first major international success with Bunuel’s “Viridiana” in 1961.

“If it wasn’t for Bunuel, nobody outside Spain and South America would have the faintest idea who I am,” Rey said in 1972.

He made four films for the noted director including Bunuel’s last, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” in 1977.

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Rey’s favorite role was that of Don Lope, the elderly guardian obsessed with his beautiful ward, portrayed by French actress Catherine Deneuve in “Tristana,” a study of old age. It was that role that won him the part in the American film “The French Connection.”

"(Bunuel) always wanted me to play dirty old men,” Rey said in 1987. “But we established a relationship that was very easy for me. Bunuel was so relaxing. Normally, when a film is finished, everybody is tired; with Bunuel you had the impression you had done nothing. I’ve seen his crew cry at the end of shooting.”

Rey is survived by his wife of 34 years, Argentine actress Mabel Karr, their son and daughter and four grandchildren.


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