'I couldn't hit a person for the world,' says the actor now typed as a tough cop in French flicks

The legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf was his mentor—and lover. Gene Kelly might never have danced with Leslie Caron had he not introduced them. Brigitte Bardot, Paul Newman and Gregory Peck are his close friends, as were Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper. But it is the career-long regret of American expatriate Eddie Constantine, 61, that he is a prodigal without honor in his own country.

On the Continent—ah, well, Constantine is something else, possibly the most readily recognized American in Paris. As a pop singer they call him "the Sinatra of the Seine." He starred in 81 films, usually in the role of a lead-fisted, wisecracking cop and was a box office smash. En route, Constantine became the craggy-faced heartthrob of European women, a combination Humphrey Bogart and Bing Crosby.

America is getting another chance to be introduced to Eddie Constantine in his latest guise—as a writer of paperback thrillers. The Odds traces the career of Charles de Belmont, a man born to nothing, who ruthlessly pursues titles, money and women. Though the work is labeled fiction, the author admits to a more-than-coincidental resemblance between the protagonist and someone Eddie once knew.

He is not referring to himself, but Constantine was himself born to little. His father, a rootless, music-loving dreamer, shuffled his family between Los Angeles and Boston. When Eddie was 17 his dad scraped some money together to send him to study opera at the Vienna Conservatory. "But I couldn't stand that milieu," Eddie says. "All those big, fat people taking care of their voices all the time."

Returning home he married Helen Musil, a ballet dancer. With his own career as crooner and songwriter going no place, Eddie followed his wife to Paris in 1947. His backstage offering to Piaf of one of his songs led to a blazing affair—"I didn't leave her for eight months," says Eddie. "She was difficult to live with, a manic-depressive, very demanding and a genius. She made me famous in Europe."

Cabaret and music hall bookings, recording contracts and a film role as a secret agent tough named Lemmy Caution followed. (Mild-mannered Eddie insists he could never hit anybody for real.) Few of his movies made it to the U.S., though in the mid-1960s he graduated to more arty and ambitious directors like Jean-Luc Godard for Alphaville.

It was about then that Constantine began a whirl as a thoroughbred stable owner. "All poor actors want to go into horse racing—it means status," he sardonically explains. If nothing else, that experience with the horsey set gave him the material for a first novel, The God Player, which has since been sold to movie producer Carlo Ponti. Eddie's long marriage to Helen produced three children before it finally ended in divorce in 1973; his second marriage, to an American lawyer, lasted only three months. His constant companion now is Diana Cheung, 40, a professor of Chinese at the University of Paris.

Constantine is now writing a third novel and doing a movie—his first in eight years—with German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. "I'd rather sit home and write than play another fighting role," he says, "but this film is different." On second thought, he adds: "When I'm writing, I wish I was acting. When I'm acting, I wish I was singing. I'm never satisfied." Of course, sitting home for Eddie Constantine by now means a $200-a-day suite at Paris's George V Hotel.