Owning a pair of the most incredibly soulful and searching eyes you’ll ever find, Michael Sarrazin’s poetic drifters crept into Hollywood unobtrusively on little cat’s feet, but it didn’t take long for him to make his mark. Quiet yet uninhibited, the lean, laconic, fleshy-lipped actor with the intriguingly faraway look and curiously sunken features enhanced a number of quality offbeat fare without ever creating too much of a fuss. While Hollywood couldn’t quite pigeonhole him, they also weren’t sure what to do with him. Out-and-out stardom would prove elusive.
He was born Jacques Michel Andre Sarrazin on May 22, 1940 in Quebec, Canada, and drifted through eight different schools before eventually dropping out. He worked at a Toronto theatre, on TV, and for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during his teen years. He also studied acting at the Actors Studio in New York. While playing parts for the National Film Board of Canada in a handful of their historical documentary shorts, he was noticed by Universal and signed in 1965. Following insignificant roles in such series as The Virginian (1962) and in the mini-movie The Doomsday Flight (1966), the actor made his film debut in the post-Civil War drama Gunfight in Abilene (1967) starring an equally offbeat Bobby Darin. One scene had him being flogged shirtless. It was Sarrazin’s second film, however, that created the initial stir playing grifter George C. Scott’s young apprentice in The Flim-Flam Man (1967). Sarrazin’s hesitant con artist more than held its own against the freewheeling Scott while also engaging in romantic clinches with Lolita (1962) sexpot Sue Lyon.
A number of other Sarrazin characters found their way as a result. He played a guileless tenderfoot again, this time taken under the wing of cowboy Anthony Franciosa, in A Man Called Gannon (1968) which takes an unexpected twist at the end; he shared the screen with fellow up-and-comers Harrison Ford and Jan-Michael Vincent as a green Confederate soldier in Journey to Shiloh (1968); earned a Golden Globe “best promising newcomer” nomination portraying an aimless surfer in The Sweet Ride (1968) opposite the spectacularly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset (they lived together for several years); and supposedly turned down the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969) in order to appear in the kinky love triangle In Search of Gregory (1969) as, yet again, another be charming young stranger, but that film was not successful.
This all culminated in the portrayal of his career as a wanderlust Depression-era floater plucked from the beach shore to participate in a grueling dance marathon. As Robert, the unassuming partner to feisty, cynical Jane Fonda’s Gloria, in the bleak, fascinatingly depressing They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Sarrazin was both soft and spellbinding. His pairing with Fonda is an eerie and ultimately doomed one resulting in a shattering climax. Remote and wordless, Sarrazin’s strength lies in both his ease and passive defiance. His peaceful body language and the few calm utterances he allows himself seems to illicit a strange, neutralizing power. It’s not the kind of movie persona, however, that wins awards – as it did for his more flamboyant co-stars Ms. Fonda, Susannah York and Gig Young.
Another glum, ostracized outsider role came in the showier form of Paul Newman’s hippie half brother in Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) and Sarrazin continued to show a flair for the unconventional with the non-mainstream Believe in Me (1971), as a medical student who shares a drug needle with (again) Ms. Bissett, and in The Pursuit of Happiness (1971) as a collegiate fighting the system. In Harry in Your Pocket (1973) Sarrazin again plays the naive square who falls in with a bad crowd (this time, pickpockets). He capped this radical run with a mesmerizing, intelligent and, of course, sympathetic portrayal of the monster in the mini-movie Frankenstein: The True Story (1973). As assurance of his offbeat popularity, he hosted Saturday Night Live (1975) twice.
A performance as the haunted title role in the psychological thriller The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) proved to be one of his last hurrahs, as the film was a critical and box office failure. At this juncture his films (or his film roles) became underwhelming. He starred in the Italian film The Loves and Times of Scaramouche (1976), but the film was very poorly received. Utterly wasted even though second billed as Barbra Streisand’s hubby in her slapstick vehicle For Pete’s Sake (1974), he also headed up a so-so car chase film in The Gumball Rally (1976). He co-starred in the big budget escapist adventure Caravans (1978), but the film was a financial disaster. The 1980s signaled a significant down turn and strange pall in his films.
It started with his third-wheel participations in the excruciating bad and violent Morgan Fairchild/Andrew Stevens stalking thriller The Seduction (1982) and in the hard-edged vigilante film Fighting Back (1982) behind Tom Skerritt/Patti LuPone. When he did have a lead, the films themselves were flawed as in Keeping Track (1986) and the excessively sleazy Mascara (1987). Sarrazin has continued to work steadily, however, but the one great film that could put him into the top character ranks had yet to arrive. With age, the always-lean Sarrazin turned pale and haggard which lent itself toward rather eccentric casting.
Throughout the course of his career, Michael remained true to his homeland, appearing in many Canadian-based productions such as The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), Double Negative (1980), Joshua Then and Now (1985), Captive Hearts (1987), The Phone Call (1989), La Florida (1993) and Crackerjack 2 (1997).
Sarrazin moved to Montreal many years back in order to be near family. He died there following a brief bout with cancer at age 70 on April 17, 2011, and was survived by daughters Michelle and Catherine, as well as producer/brother Pierre Sarrazin. While the fascination and appeal of Michael Sarrazin certainly cannot be denied, one wonders why Hollywood was not able to serve his talent better in later years.