Claude Rich, who has died aged 88, was a familiar face in French cinema and theatre for almost seven decades. The much-loved actor alternated between stage and screen, considering the latter as recreation, the former a passion. In fact, he had few really challenging roles on screen, despite having made films for the New Wave directors Alain Resnais, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. His reputation among French audiences derived from a string of mainstream comedies, especially in the 1960s, in which they cherished his ever-youthful, naive persona, his lilting voice and consistent smile, either charming or mischievous.
The film that made him a star was Les Tontons Flingueurs (1963), rendered variously in English as Monsieur Gangster or Crooks in Clover (literally, The Killer Uncles). Scripted by Michel Audiard, a master of witty and biting French argot, the comedy-thriller has Rich as Antoine, an effete young man engaged to the teenage ward of Fernand, a reformed gangster (Lino Ventura). Rich is both amusing and suitably irritating as a snob and pedant, causing Fernand to kick him out of the house.
Rich, who was born in Strasbourg, was brought up with his three siblings by his widowed mother (his father, an engineer, died of flu when Claude was a boy). At school in Paris during the German occupation, he thought of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. However, after the war, he worked in a bank, while becoming interested in acting.
At the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art, Jean Rochefort, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Annie Girardot were among his contemporaries. In 1953, soon after leaving with a second prize (no first prizes were given that year), Rich got work in professional theatre, beginning with the role of one of the two cynical murderers in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1954) at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. A year later, he made his film debut in René Clair’s gently ironic romantic comedy, Les Grandes Manoeuvres (Summer Manoeuvres), the first of his many roles in uniform, which included the elegant first world war officer and stage-door Johnny in Jacqueline Audry’s Mitsou (1957).
Again for Clair, Rich was in the best of the seven sketches in Love and the Frenchwoman (1960). Entitled Marriage, it had Rich and Marie-José Nat as a married couple jolted by their first arguments while on the way to their honeymoon destination. In the portmanteau movie The Seven Deadly Sins (1962), in the Greed segment, sharply directed by Chabrol, Rich is one of a group of military cadets who dreams of a night of love with a prostitute. To raise the money, they organise a lottery with her as the prize.
One of his best films was Jean Renoir’s wry and touching Le Caporal Epinglé (The Vanishing Corporal, 1962), set in German PoW camps during the second world war. The bespectacled Rich, who is selected as an interpreter though he does not speak a word of German, admits his cowardice to the eponymous constantly escaping corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the walls of the latrine acting as a confessional.
Rich was among the starry cast of René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? (1966), about the liberation of the French capital. He played two leading French army officers: General Leclerc, with a moustache, and Lt Pierre de la Fouchardière, without a moustache. His role as the young lieutenant came not by chance because, as a teenager, he was watching soldiers in the street when the real De la Fouchardière called him into a building to protect him.
In Truffaut’s Hitchcockian The Bride Wore Black (1968), Rich plays the first of five victims targeted by Jeanne Moreau as revenge for having killed her bridegroom on the wedding day. She tracks him down to his high-rise apartment where he is having a party on the eve of his wedding. Being a ladies’ man, he cannot resist following her on to the balcony, where she tells him her name and pushes him off the building.
In the same year, Resnais gave Rich one of his few leading roles in the cerebral sci-fi movie Je T’aime Je T’aime. As a young man saved from suicide, he is invited by scientists to participate in an experiment that sends him back in time for short periods. Rich, as the human guinea pig, holds the film together as a charming, caustically humorous, essentially weak man. Also for Resnais was Stavisky (1974), the true 1930s story of an infamous financier and swindler (played by Belmondo) who is pursued by Rich, superbly sly as the dogged Inspector Bonny.
At the same time, theatre kept Rich busy during the 70s and 80s, with some of his major parts being the title roles of Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio (1976), directed by Franco Zeffirelli for the Comédie Française, and Shakespeare’s Pericles (1978), directed by Roger Planchon. In 1989 he played Talleyrand to Claude Brasseur’s Fouché in Le Souper, which three years later was made into a film for which Rich won a César. He later became known to a new generation of filmgoers with his appearance in a long white beard as the druid magician Panoramix in Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra (2002).
Rich, who was a devout Catholic, though he called himself a “pitiable Christian”, married the actor Catherine Renaudin in 1959. She survives him, as do their two daughters, Delphine and Natalie, and son, Rémy.
• Claude Rich, actor, born 8 February 1929; died 20 July 2017