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French actor Michel Serrault dies at 79

French actor Michel Serrault, whose hit performance as a transvestite in the film and screen versions of "La cage aux folles" (The Birdcage) catapulted him to international stardom, has died, his priest said Monday. He was 79.

Serrault died Sunday of cancer in his home in the northwestern city of Honfleur, Rev. Alain Maillard de La Morandais said.

Serrault appeared in more than 130 films during a career that spanned half a century. After debuting as a comic actor, Serrault became one of France's most versatile stars, playing a serial killer, a grizzled farmer, a crooked banker and accused rapist.

"I'm against those who only want to entertain," Serrault said in 2002. "I am very happy with all the roles I've played, and I take responsibility for them all."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid homage to Serrault's "impressive filmography," calling the actor a "monument of the world of the theater, the cinema and the television."

In a statement Monday, Sarkozy said Serrault touched "each French person with his talents as an actor - both comic and tragic."

Born on Jan. 24, 1928, in Brunoy, south of Paris, Serrault initially set his sights on the priesthood, briefly entering a seminary. He dropped out, he later explained, because of the vow of chastity.

After studying acting in Paris, Serrault began as his stage career playing in cabarets.

He made his silver screen debut in 1954 in Jean Loubignac's "Ah! les belles bacchantes" (Oh, the lovely bacchantes), which was released as "Peek-a-boo" in the United States. His first big break came in 1972, with a leading role in Pierre Tchernia's "Le Viager" (The Life Annuity.)

But it was his role as flamboyant gay nightclub owner Albin Mougeotte, also known as Zaza Napoli, in the theater and film versions of the mega-hit "La cage aux folles" (The Birdcage) that catapulted him to international fame. His performance in director Edouard Molinaro's 1978 movie won him the first of three Cesar awards - the French version of the Oscar.

In 1995, he starred opposite Emmanuelle Beart in "Nelly et M. Arnaud" (Nelly and Mr. Arnaud), winning another Cesar.

Serrault remained active, featuring in films through his late seventies. Among his final films was Pierre Javaux's 2006 "Les enfants du pays" (Hometown Boys), about the role of African soldiers in WWII.

Serrault is survived by his wife, Juanita, and daughter, Nathalie.

Serrault was to be buried Wednesday or Thursday in Honfleur, Rev. de La Morandais said.