Alain Delon: French cinema legend dogged by scandal and family feud

We look back at the 88-year-old film star’s colourful life, on and off screen

Alain Delon at the screening of A Hidden Life (Une Vie Cachée) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019
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Alain Delon has filled the front pages of French newspapers for decades, but the latest headlines have an altogether more tragic twist.

Rather than concentrating on his global success as an actor, his colourful love life, brooding good looks or even brushes with the law, the last few months have been dominated instead by the bitter feud playing out between his three children and the 88-year-old’s increasing frailty following a stroke in 2019.

Many commentators trace the difficult relationship Delon has with his sons to his own unhappy upbringing.

Sent to live with a foster family

He was born on November 8, 1935, in Sceaux (Hauts-de-Seine) to Fabien Delon, who owned a local cinema, and Edith Arnold, a pharmacist.

It was a troubled childhood. He barely saw his parents after they divorced when he was four and he was sent to live with a foster family.

Later, he was expelled from school for unruly behaviour and eventually left aged 14, working briefly in his stepfather’s butcher’s shop.

Aged 17, he joined the French navy and served in Saigon during the First Indochina War, but was kicked out of the military for stealing a jeep.

Met emerging star Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris

He was lured into the film industry following a move to Paris, where he hoped to make a living.

Here he connected with the intelligentsia of the Saint-Germain-des-Près district and met emerging star Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Read more: Jean-Paul Belmondo: France's cinematic icon who rejected Hollywood

It was his appearance, first and foremost, that landed him his first movie roles – as well as a steady stream of glamorous girlfriends.

It was not long before he was garnering critical acclaim too, beginning in 1960 with the film Purple Noon (Plein Soleil – loosely based on the 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith), where he convinced the director to let him play the scheming Tom Ripley.

A steady stream of hits followed, both in Europe and the US, turning Delon into a global sex symbol.

His colourful love life only enhanced his appeal.

He was romantically linked to everyone from US actress Lana Wood to the German-French star Romy Schneider and singer Dalida.

Star of French cinema

Delon’s movie career from 1960 to the mid-1970s is almost unrivalled in French cinema history. He starred in some of the country’s greatest films alongside the crème de la crème of directors and actors.

Read more: Legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard dies aged 91

Classics include Rocco and his Brothers (1960), Any Number Can Win (1963), The Leopard (1963), Is Paris Burning? (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), The Sicilian Clan (1969), Borsalino (1970), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Monsieur Klein (1976).

However, the death in 1973 of acclaimed director Jean-Pierre Melville, with whom Delon shot three movies, is said to have deeply affected him.

He won a César for best actor in Our Story (1985) but did not even attend the ceremony to claim his trophy.

Image: Amain Delon was honoured at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; Credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock

Scandal added to the Delon myth

In truth, Delon had trapped himself in cop and gangster roles and gradually lost his taste for acting, becoming a producer and sporadic screenwriter and director instead.

His business empire had by then extended into other industries, including perfume, alcohol and clothing, becoming a worldwide brand.

His notoriety was not just the result of screen and entrepreneurial success, however. In 1968, the death of his close friend and one-time bodyguard Stevan Markovic – found dumped in a skip on the outskirts of Paris – set tongues wagging that he was somehow implicated.

The scandal involved another famous figure when it was claimed Markovic had been eliminated because of an orgy he had staged, at which future president Georges Pompidou’s wife was snapped by a hidden camera.

Mocked for referring to himself in the third person

It all added to the Delon myth and even the man himself seemed to buy into it. He became increasingly mocked for referring to himself in the third person, for example.

“I was placed on an orbit and I must stay there and let it be. This comet, this insanity, gets to the point where ‘Delon’ becomes a label,” he said in a TV interview in 1991.

“And you must keep being it, play it, remain and dwell in it, because the public wants it, because you want it a bit and because that’s the rule.”

He continued: “I do not know exactly where I am, he does not know exactly where he is, because the machine overtakes him and he must outrun it to overtake it again.”

Poked fun at himself as Caesar in Asterix film

The conceit was astutely appropriated in the 2008 comedy Asterix at the Olympic Games in which Delon played Caesar, hilariously referring to himself in the third person while standing in front of a mirror.

“Caesar does not grow old, he matures,” the famous speech went.

“His hair doesn’t turn white, it lights up. Caesar is immortal, for a long time to come. Caesar has achieved everything, conquered everything.

“He’s a cheetah, a samurai, he owes nothing to anyone. Not to Rocco, not to his brothers, not to the clan of Sicilians.

“Caesar is from the race of lords, and, in fact, the César for best emperor was awarded to Caesar... Ave me!”

A recluse and disabled by a stroke

Delon’s screen career was celebrated with a Palme d’honneur at Cannes in May 2019, at which he wryly remarked: “Tonight feels like a posthumous tribute while still being alive.”

Since then, he has lived a reclusive life, disabled by a stroke, on his estate in the Loiret.

It is there that he wishes to be buried, but he is by no means being left to rest in peace in the meantime.

As well as the continuing family feud, his former housekeeper/partner – her exact role is the subject of much speculation – is suing Delon’s children for endangering his life by refusing him medicines.

Hiromi Rollin, who had been living with Delon since 2006, was evicted from the estate by his children last year in a rare show of sibling unity after they accused her of emotional abuse.

Photo: Alain Delon and his daughter Anouchka Delon, who is said to be his favourite child, at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival; Credit: Jaguar PS / Shutterstock

The latest twist?

In January, Delon was placed under legal protection over concerns about his health and wellbeing amid all the squabbling.

While it will not affect him day to day, it does prevent him selling any major assets, and a third-party representative will help him choose suitable medical treatment and doctors.

Read more: Explainer: ‘tutelle’ and other forms of power of attorney in France

Unhappy families: Why are the children squabbling?

The family feud has allegedly never been about inheritance – the will has already been settled and agreed by all three of Delon’s children.

Rather, Anthony, 59, whose mother Nathalie was Delon’s only wife, has accused his half-sister, Anouchka, 33, of hiding the results of cognitive tests that doctors had performed on their father.

He also claims she wants to move their father to Switzerland for financial rather than medical reasons, so as not to pay tax on her inheritance.

For her part Anouchka, daughter of Dutch model Rosalie van Breemen, claimed Delon could “no longer endure the aggressivity of his son, who is constantly telling him he is senile”.

Her younger brother Alain-Fabien, 29, later added fuel to the fire, siding with his half-brother and playing a secret recording of Anouchka “dripping insinuations” into their father’s ear.

As things stand, Anouchka, Delon’s reported favourite child, is expected to get 50% of his estate, while the two sons would share the remaining half.

Media reports speculate his fortune to be worth anything from €50million to €200million, amassed not just from acting but his production company, properties, art collections and business ventures.

Until last year, there was a third son.

Ari Boulogne, a photographer and actor, was born in 1962 to the German rock star Nico.

Delon, however, consistently denied paternity despite admitting having had a brief affair with Nico.

“Boy, neither do you have my hair nor my eyes. You are not and never will be my son,” Mr Boulogne claimed Delon once told him, during an interview in 2001.

He was partly raised by Delon’s mother and her second husband, whose surname he took.

He died in 2023 after battling drug addiction.

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