Jean Rochefort was a French national treasure when he was cast to play Don Quixote in 1998 by the former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, who dreamed of bringing Cervantes’ “unfilmable” novel to the big screen.
But things soon began to go wrong with the wildly ambitious project in which Johnny Depp was to play a marketing executive sent back in time who the elderly knight mistakes for his squire, Sancho Panza.
The veteran actor was struck by a prostrate infection on the first day of shooting in Spain which left him in agony on the back of his half-starved horse.
Then on the second day a flash flood washed away the sets. Four days later the production collapsed when Rochefort had to be airlifted to hospital for surgery for a double hernia.
Over the next two decades Gilliam failed seven times to get the project off the ground again, and his doomed efforts to revive it became the subject of an acclaimed documentary, “Lost in La Mancha”.
But last year Amazon finally agreed to fund the film and “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” will be released next year.
– Tensions with Gilliam –
Rochefort was withering about working with Gilliam, telling French television in 2014 that the American director had starved his horse before shooting began to make it look haggard.
An experienced horseman, Rochefort said he was shocked to see “the people around me had apples tied to their backs” so the horse would follow them.
He said the horse died the day after he left the set.
Rochefort was a mainstay of the French film industry for more than half a century, appearing both in comedies, popular blockbusters as well as art films.
He won three Cesars — the French answer to the Oscars — the first for Bertrand Tavernier’s 1975 film “Let Joy Reign Supreme” and another three years later for “Le Crabe-Tambour” (Drummer Crab). A lifetime’s achievement award followed in 1999.
Famous for his wit and self-deprecating humour, he later joked: “I am part of (French) national heritage. There is Bayonne ham, (Philippe) Noiret, (Jean-Pierre) Marielle and me,” in reference to two other well-known ageing actors.
– Dinner with the Queen –
Born in Paris to prosperous parents, Rochefort claimed to have had a deadly dull childhood in the western city of Nantes. “Lord, I was bored as a child,” he said.
Listening to the radio sparked his interest in theatre, and he fled to study acting in Paris. His movie breakthrough did not come till he was nearly 30, however.
Roles in movies such as “Angelique” and “Le Masque de fer” (The Iron Mask) followed, and director Yves Robert began casting him on a regular basis, starting with “Le Grand blond avec une chaussure noire” (The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe) in 1972.
He formally retired after starring in his last film “Floride” (Florida) in 2015, playing a former industrialist who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “I do not want to make horror films, so I had better stop,” he said.
Rochefort had a passion for horses and owned a stud farm west of Paris.
He was once invited by the French president to dine with Queen Elizabeth II, and accepted, thinking he would be one among hundreds. In fact there were eight guests, including former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Rochefort found himself seated directly across from the queen but rose to the occasion, managing to make small talk about her daughter Princess Anne, a keen equestrian, the weather, and even blacksmithing.
“I have been told you still practice cold shoeing in Hampshire,” he asked in reference to a waning method of protecting horses’ hooves.
“No, less and less,” the queen replied.