Johnny Hallyday, known as the “French Elvis” for his massively popular recordings and acting career, has died. He was 74 years old and had been battling cancer, according to Agence France Presse.
Widely credited as the first French star to popularize early rock ‘n roll in France, Halladay sold more than 110 million records over his 50-year career. He sang French-language covers of American pop, starting with his 1960 debut album. His appearances soon set off near-riots, and his popularity paved the way for American rock acts to break into the French market. Hallyday reportedly gave the Jimi Hendrix Experience its first France performance, opening for him at the Paris Olympia in October, 1966.
Hallyday made his first screen appearance in 1955, and broke out in France in Where Are You From Johnny?, essentially playing himself in his portrait of a young rocker.
As Hallyday aged, he transitioned into ballads, remaining popular as his generation went along with his changing style. In 2001, he performed at the Eiffel Tower before more than 600,000 people.
Hallyday dominated the charts in France. He recorded more than 1,000 songs, writing many of them, and hit No. 1 on the French charts more than 30 times. But crossing over to the American market remained elusive – despite appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, US concerts, and many Las Vegas appearances, he remained something of a cult act in the states.
In the 1980s, Hallyday starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective, winning critical notice for his portrayal of a boxing manager who was heavily in debt. Again, it was not a stretch, as Hallyday struggled in real life with tax issues.
His best acting performance was his world-weary criminal in Patrice Leconte’s 2002 The Man on the Train, winning him that year’s Prix Jean Gabin for best actor. He also appeared in The Pink Panther 2 with Steve Martin in 2009 and the Johnnie To film Vengeance that same year.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Malesherbes, Paris, Hallyday was the son of a French mother and Belgian father. When his parents divorced, he was raised by an aunt, a former silent film star. He later took his stage name from his aunt’s husband, American entertainer Lee Halliday, who played a big influence on his life.
Elvis Presley was said to be the inspiration for Hallyday’s serious showbiz bug. After allegedly seeing Elvis’s film Loving You, he signed up for acting and singing lessons, which led to his successful career launch.
While audiences loved Hallyday, his personal life was rocky at times. Besides the tax problems, he had a failed suicide attempt, broken marriages, documented drug addiction to cocaine, a bad motorcycle accident, and a surgery on a herniated disc that went horribly wrong.
Hallyday is survived by his wife, Laeticia, and their two adopted children, Jade and Joy; son David Hallyday from his first marriage with actress Sylvie Vartan; and daughter Laura Smet from his relationship with actress Nathalie Baye.