Actor Michael Sarrazin dies at 70

Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin, known for his role opposite Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, died Sunday in Montreal at age 70.

Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin, known for his role opposite Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, died Sunday in Montreal at age 70.

He died after a brief illness, with his daughters Catherine and Michele at his side, according to a family spokesman.

Quebec City-born Sarrazin was a "brilliant actor who rocketed to fame in his early 20s when he was discovered by Hollywood," said his agent Michael Oscars.

He played in The Flim-Flam Man with George C. Scott, Sometimes a Great Notion with Paul Newman, and took on an extraordinary turn in the 1973 television production of Frankenstein: the True Story, as a character who fights for the monster. 

More recently Sarrazin appeared in Canadian productions including 1985's Joshua Then and Now, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, and La Florida, in which he played the lounge singer Romeo Laflamme. The film about a Quebec family who buys a motel in Florida to escape the cold winters won the Golden Reel Award for 1993.

Quebec-born Michael Sarrazin had a 40-year career on the screen. He died Sunday in Montreal. (Oscars Abrams Zimel + Associates)
His younger brother Pierre, who produced the film, says he lured Michael from Hollywood to take the role opposite Rémy Girard and Margot Kidder.

"I asked him to act in French, which was difficult for him as he'd been so long in L.A., but it all came back to him. We'd grown up in east-end Montreal," Pierre Sarrazin recalled.

It also brought him great recognition in Montreal. "People would call out on the street 'Hello, Romeo Laflamme.' After all those roles in Hollywood, in Montreal, it was Romeo Laflamme," Sarrazin added.

Michael was joking with paramedics at the hospital right to the end, Sarrazin said. "He was an incredibly funny person and his best performances were for his family and his friends. He had an very inventive original mind and a very gentle soul."

Born Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin on May 22, 1940 in Quebec City, Sarrazin went to eight different schools before dropping out. 

"None of us was surprised when Hollywood called for Michael because he was such a star in our family. People from the next block were coming over saying 'I hear there's a very funny guy, funny kid on the street.' He was a great raconteur," his brother said.

 He went to Toronto to find work as an actor, and found roles in theatre, on TV and for the CBC in his teen years. One of those roles was in a live TV drama version of Romeo and Juliet opposite Genevieve Bujold. He later studied at the Actors Studio in New York.

He was noticed by Universal while playing in a historical documentary short for the National Film Board of Canada. Beginning his Hollywood career in 1965, he began in TV series The Virginian and TV movie The Doomsday Flight before starring in the post-Civil War drama Gunfight in Abilene.

After coming to wider notice with The Flim-Flam Man, Sarrazin played a series of hollow-eyed, soulful drifters that seemed to fit the anti-hero ethos of the era.

He played an aimless surfer in 1968's The Sweet Ride and a medical student who shoots up in The Pursuit of Happiness, both opposite Jacqueline Bisset, who was a long-time romantic partner.

He is the Depression-era wanderer who dances with Fonda's cynical character in 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a role in which he utters few lines, conveying his world-weariness with body language alone. He is also memorable in the title role of the psychological thriller The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, playing a man who relives his past reincarnations.

He moved into more minor roles in the 1980s, including spots on TV's Street Legal, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in 1996's Deep Space Nine. One of his last films was 2008's The Christmas Choir, but he also has a small turn in Walter Salles's upcoming film On the Road, based on the Jack Kerouac book. 

Sarrazin returned to live in Montreal five years ago where he was embraced as one of Canada's and Quebec's great contributors to cinema. He leaves his daughters Michelle and Catherine, sister Enid, sisters-in-law Marguerite Sarrazin and Suzette Couture and his brother Pierre.