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The man who re-popularized the ancient art of pantomime was born 100 years ago

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Marcel Marceau spent more than half the 20th century repopularizing the ancient art of pantomime for a modern age. The tireless performer was born 100 years ago this month. When he died in 2007, at the age of 84, the world commemorated him appropriately with a moment of silence, and critic Bob Mondello offered this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO: Others have whitened their faces, blacked their lips and eyes and leaned into a nonexistent wind. Others have plucked petals from invisible flowers, struggled to win a ropeless tug of war and chased after butterflies only they can see. But no one has ever done this sort of clowning with more absolute belief than Marcel Marceau. His body, so lithe and expressive, his gestures, so liquid his hands sometimes appeared to have no bones at all, are only part of it.

The mechanics of his craft, the boiling down of gesture to its essence, can be learned but not his ability to mine mime for the veins of emotion and pathos he found in it. Wistfulness, yes - street mimes can manage that - but anguish, hope, innocence, those are harder. And he packed them all into a single sketch he called "Youth, Maturity, Old Age And Death." I first saw him do it in 1957 when my second-grade class was taken to a school show in a 3,000-seat auditorium filled with shrieking children. Almost miraculously, we all stopped shrieking as he took us on a journey from birth through the playful childhood we knew to a sad, stooped frailty he pictured as a kind of second childhood.

I saw him do that sketch many times through the years, finding more in it each time I saw it. Most recently, I saw it with my two young nephews. Marceau was, by this time, 79, but he seemed astonishingly as limber as ever. My nephews laughed as he chased himself around a curtain as both David and Goliath and laughed again as his character Bip, inspired by Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, ice skated and tamed Lions. The Chaplin connection I had to explain, but the boys recognized another connection on their own when Marceau, in his "Walking Against The Wind" sketch, slid backwards in a move that Michael Jackson had borrowed and rechristened a moonwalk.

Marceau's influence extends further than that, of course, to theater and dance and the hybrid forms like Cirque du Soleil that dress up pantomime with eerie lighting and music, allowing mere mortals to approximate what the master accomplished with little more than purity of gesture. On his first U.S. appearance in 1955, The New York Times called Marceau a genius in a school of art that is not especially popular because only a genius really counts in it. It's worth noting that Marceau brought his not especially popular art to literally millions around the globe. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.