Gerard Depardieu, France's Burly Bon Vivant, Arrives with Green Card

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Come across French actor Gérard Depardieu in an unlit alley, and your first reaction might be to run the other way. His dirty-blond hair hangs haphazardly over his brow. His fist-adjusted nose bulges above his thick lantern jaw. His powerful bulk—often clothed in something dark and disheveled—suggests he could hold his own in a boxing ring. With a slight stretch of imagination, you can see him suddenly knocking you to the ground and making off with your goods.

But should you happen to come across Depardieu, 42, on a movie screen, you will see an impassioned sculptor (Camille Claudel), a doomed revolutionary (Danton) or a bewildered bourgeois lover (Too Beautiful for You). With more than 70 film roles tucked under his expansive belt, this former juvenile delinquent has long been the undisputed heavyweight—in both volume and versatility—of French cinema. But can he go the distance in America? While his swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac delights Francophiles who have the patience for subtitles, Depardieu finally breaks out in accented anglais in his first major English-language film, Peter Weir's Green Card. Playing a French composer who bargains for a visa but gets love American-style with Andie MacDowell instead, he proves that his Gallic charm can travel: Four weeks after Green Card's Christmas Day opening, he picked up a Golden Globe for best comic actor.

Though he ought to be jet-lagged from a recent spree of intercontinental commutes, Depardieu can hardly sit still, refusing to remove his green windbreaker for a chat in Paris before speeding off to his bucolic homestead in the suburb of Bougival. "I can't stand boredom," he says, which is his usual response to critics who chastise him for not being pickier about his roles. He admits that his body of work—which includes about 50 plays and TV productions—is uneven. "There's a lot of crap, a lot of failures," he concedes. "But there are some interesting films." For Depardieu, acting is an obsession to be paraded before as many witnesses as possible. "I don't believe in undiscovered genius," he says.

Had he taken a different road at one crossroads or another, his genius for acting might have been buried in a life on the streets. Born in the undistinguished provincial town of Châteauroux, Depardieu was the third child of six in a family he describes as "poorer than poor." ("It's good for an actor to be raised in poverty," he has said. "The poor dream more.") His father, a sheet-metal worker, could not read or write; Gérard remembers his unhappy mother as "constantly pregnant." By age 12, he was running around with American GIs from the local NATO base (he says he broke his nose in a boxing match with one of them) and later with prostitutes. By 13, he had dropped out of school—his parents did not object—and had begun hitchhiking around Europe, earning pocket change as a door-to-door soap salesman and a beachboy in the south of France.

In a more sordid phase of his adolescence, Depardieu says he stole cars, peddled black-market cigarettes and booze, and took part in wild sexual escapades. But Michel Pilorgé, a childhood friend, says the tales of criminality are exaggerated. Gérard "was never a hoodlum," says Pilorgé, "but he loved the mythology." It was Pilorgé who led 16-year-old Gérard, on a lark, to drama classes at Paris's Théâtre National Populaire, where he was suddenly tamed by poetry and drama and became an instant star pupil.

His film career was launched in 1974 with Bertrand Blier's Going Places, which followed two hoodlums on a casually violent rollick across France, Easy Rider-style. Depardieu attracted attention for giving a running commentary to his sidekick, Patrick Dewaere, as he made love to Miou-Miou. Though some critics bemoaned the film's tone of gleeful amorality, Going Places became a cult hit.

According to Depardieu, Blier had been advised by producers not to cast him in Going Places because "he'll scare women." Over the years, though, this loutish giant has become something of a sex symbol. Such sultry stars as Isabelle Adjani and Catherine Deneuve praise his skill and infectious energy. Says Carole Bouquet, Depardieu's Too Beautiful costar: "He leads me, he takes me away, and I go."

Though one might expect that Depardieu would be tempted by his leading ladies, his 20-year marriage to Elisabeth Guignot, 49, an actress, singer and songwriter whom he met at the Théatre National Populaire, appears as solid as his gut. (The Depardieus have two children, Guillaume, 19, a college music major, and Julie, 17.) While Gérard is game for a little seductive teasing, he says he values fidelity over flirtation. "Conquest is not heroic," he says. "What's heroic is to make love last." A few moments later, he begins humming Ravel's Boléro, gesturing sinuously with his hands.

When it comes to food and drink, Depardieu, who owns 62 acres of vineyards in the Loire Valley, indulges with abandon. His 5'11" frame has occasionally ballooned from 170 to 250 lbs., a spectacular inflation that he shrugs off. Getting in shape for movies has not proved a problem, he claims. "When I start to think, the body follows. It swells or goes down." As for drinking, "I think it's fun," he has said. "One becomes more generous, more expansive." Last summer, when his rented car collided with another vehicle on a country road in Vichy, he flunked a sobriety test, received a two-month suspended prison sentence and lost his license for six months. Depardieu attributes the accident, which caused only minor injuries, to his fiddling with the car phone while he drove. His Mercedes is now chauffeured.

In the future Depardieu may be spending a lot of his travel time in the air, taking advantage of his newfound success in the States. "I'm fascinated by America," he says. But he promises never to settle in Hollywood. For one thing, he has qualms about the California climate. "Flat sea with sun scares me," he says. "All I like is the trees, the vegetation. Everything that gets in the way, I like. Everything growing that's wild." That sounds a lot, all in all, like himself.

—Jeannie Park, Cathy Nolan in Paris

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