Born: Mériel, France, 17 May 1904.
The son of café entertainers, he started out at age 14 as a laborer, but at 19 gave in to his father’s urging and entered show business as a dancer with the Folies-Bergère. Played supporting parts in music halls and operettas before returning to the Folies as Mistinguette’s leading man. He made his film debut in 1930, first rose to prominence in Duvivier’s Maria Chapdelaine (1934), and subsequently established himself as a forceful screen personality, “the tragic hero of contemporary cinema,” in the words of André Bazin. In the late 30s Gabin gained an international reputation as the strong, silent, and often deeply human hero, and more often, anti-hero, of such milestones of the French cinema as Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, and Carné’s Port of Shadows. The quintessential Gabin role was that of an earthy loner, an outsider, usually a courageous, independent-minded member of the bourgeois or working-class. But he also played a variety of other roles, ranging from hobo to tycoon.
During the occupation, Gabin found refuge in Hollywood, but his two American films were flat and disappointing. After a period of adjustment in the mid-40s, Gabin had regained his stature as a leading figure of the French cinema by 1950. Instead of the young man of common origins he had typically played in prewar films, he now protrayed experienced, successful middle-aged men of confidence and authority. In 1963 he and Fernandel formed their own production company, Gafer Films. Gabin’s 40-year career as a leading star has made him a national institution in France and one of the best known screen personalities the world over.