Marcel Marceau could speak five languages. But his rumpled clown character Bip spoke volumes without saying a word. From his first American tour in 1955, Marceau’s deceptively simple sketches (who could forget “Walking Against the Wind” or “The Cage”?) single-handedly revived the ancient art of mime. “He was a theater company all wrapped up in one person,” says Billy the Mime, a current performer who took classes from Marceau. “He was the director, the writer, the actor—he even made the sets appear.”
Marceau, who died at age 84 (an exact cause of death was not released), was born Marcel Mangel to a Jewish family in Strasbourg, France. During World War II, he lost his father at Auschwitz and joined the French Resistance. Wanted by the Gestapo, he changed his name and moved to Paris, where he discovered pantomime in drama school: “I was like a fish in water,” he once told PEOPLE.
A ’70s talk show regular and an occasional actor—he had the only speaking role in Mel Brooks’s 1976 Silent Movie—the thrice-married father of four toured until retiring in 2005. As he told PEOPLE in 2000, “The art of mime is like dance and music, still [a] universal language.”