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Julien Baptiste – Centre stage at last

Tchéky Karyo’s fame reaches a whole new level appearing as Baptiste

Tcheky Karyo stars as Julien Baptiste - Credit: BBC

Tchéky Karyo’s fame reaches a whole new level appearing as Baptiste

Depending on your age and taste, you’ll either know Tchéky Karyo from his villainous turns in American blockbusters such as Bad Boys and The Patriot or you’ll be familiar with his performances as empathetic French detective Julien Baptiste in two series of the BBC’s The Missing. And now, as the star of spin-off series Baptiste – which starts on BBC One this weekend – Karyo’s fame seems set to reach a whole new level.

It’s all a long way from Istanbul where Baruh Djaki Karyo was born on October 4, 1953, to a Greek mother and a father whose ancestors were Spanish Sephardi Jews. When the family later moved to Paris, Tchéky – the French translation of his middle name – fell in love with the theatre. His enthusiasm was fanned by Daniel Sorano, the French stage and screen actor so closely associated with the role of Cyrano de Bergerac that he was buried in the costume. As part of Sorano’s company, Karyo caught the eye of the National Theatre of Strasbourg, a rather grander institution than it sounds that gave Tchkey the chance to play the greatest roles in French and Shakespearean theatre.

As for film and television, Karyo got his first break courtesy of Daniel Vigne who cast him in 1982’s The Return of Martin Guerre. Two years later, he played the male lead in Eric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris. It was his performance opposite the ursine stars of The Bear (1989) that put him on the international map, that and an eye-catching role in Luc Besson’s hitwoman thriller Nikita (1990). A move across the Atlantic, meanwhile, was made possible by Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992), the moribund Columbus epic which saw Karyo play shipowner Martin Alonso Pinzon opposite the biggest French star of the day, Gerard Depardieu.

And what, pray tell, was the project with which Tchéky Karyo announced his presence in America? Why, it was a role in Red Shoes Diaries (1992), the television spin-off from the Greg Nicotero soft-core film series.

Fortunately, far better things were on the horizon. These included a turn as the pioneering Polish scientist Willy Rozenbaum in HBO AIDS drama And the Band Played On (1993), plus the title role in Roger Christian’s Nostradamus (1994), an extraordinarily dull film made tolerable by its charismatic leading man.

Then, as it must for all continental European actors keen on working in Hollywood, it became time to play the villain. But while other actors might have struggled to stand out among the explosions and Martin Lawrence’s mugging, Karyo was one of the very best things about Michael Bay’s Bad Boys (1995), his French drug kingpin projecting real menace in an otherwise artificial movie.

Suitably impressed, the studios proceeded to cast Karyo as the bad guy in all manner of films. The James Bond revival movie GoldenEye (1995), meanspirited rom-com Addicted To Love (1997), Jet Li martial arts kick-up Kiss of the Dragon (2001), overblown Mel Gibson revolutionary war epic The Patriot (2000) – it was as if former multipurpose eurovillain Jurgen Prochnow had tagged out and Karyo had tagged in.

Karyo was also still in demand in France, teaming up again with Besson for The Messenger: Joan Of Arc (1999) and co-starring with Monica Bellucci in the heist comedy Like a Fish Out of Water (1999). Word of how good a big baddie he made also reached home, and it wasn’t long before our man found himself playing the leader of the forty thieves in an Arabian Nights television series and the notorious Cardinal Richelieu in The Four Musketeers.

As far as his future as a beloved if somewhat unusual television detective is concerned, the key was Karyo’s performance as Roger, the Johnny Hallyday-adoring detective in The Good Thief (2002). Adapted from the French classic Bob le Flambeur by Crying Game writer-director Neil Jordan, The Good Thief stars Nick Nolte as Bob Montagnet, a heroin-addicted gambler who hits on a plan to rob a mob casino in the south of France. Since the Riviera falls within his jurisdiction, it falls to Roger to bring Montagnet to book, although what with them being mates as well as rivals, the cop would be far happier if his friend simply walked away from the whole sorry business. A perfectly decent film, albeit one marred by jarring editing, The Good Thief is at its best whenever the desiccated Bob and the rumpled Roger are on screen together.

More than a decade would pass between The Good Thief and The Missing. In between, Karyo appeared in a range of films and television programmes varying between the quite excellent – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004) – and the unremittingly awful – American horror movie The Gravedancers (2006).

Taken as a whole, Karyo’s work between 2002 and 2014 smacks of someone killing time until something big comes along.
Created by Harry and Jack Williams (Rellik, Liar, Strangers), The Missing (2014) was the series that threatened to turn Tchéky Karyo into that most unusual of household names. Not that that’s what the programme was designed to do. A child abduction drama that owed something to the Madeleine McCann tragedy, The Missing provided Cold Feet star James Nesbitt with the acting challenge of a lifetime.

As Tony Hughes, the bereft father of five-year-old Oliver, Nesbitt went to the outskirts of himself, his performance in the final episode meriting rather more than the BAFTA nomination it received.

Fellow leads Frances O’Connor, Ken Stott and Jason Flemyng were also quite excellent, with Diana Quick and Clive Francis very strong in their supporting roles.
Still it was Karyo’s Julien Baptiste who made the greatest impression. With his long-suffering wife Celia (Anastasia Hille) and drug-addicted daughter Sara (Camille Schotte), Baptiste was the detective first charged with finding Oliver. Eight years on and with the child still missing, he is shaken by Tony’s refusal to give up on his boy. A gentle man whose own family tragedy has left him open to helping others, Baptiste teams up with Tony to crack a case on the brink of turning stone cold.

With its countless twists and complicated flashback structure, it’s hard to say too much about series one of The Missing without giving the game away.
Better perhaps to focus on the widespread relief viewers experienced at the end of the last episode when a trailer promised that The Missing would return.
When it did, in 2016, it would be with a new case and a new cast. David Morrissey and Keeley Hawes star as Sam and Gemma Webster, who are struggling to come to terms with the reappearance of their daughter Alice (Abigail Hardingham), 11 years after she was abducted. When Alice claims that she was in captivity with a French girl, Sophie Giroux, a call is put through to Baptiste.

Now retired and riddled with cancer, Baptiste has been searching for Sophie ever since she disappeared. In attempting to solve one last case before the end credits roll, he embarks on a quest that will take him from the deserts of Iraq to the Swiss Alps.

What went for season one goes double for The Missing season two. The cast are uniformly excellent (Roger Allam is particularly strong as a brigadier fighting a losing battle with Alzheimer’s), the plot defies easy explanation, and the twists come at a wonderfully satisfying rate. But again, the day belongs to Karyo and his remarkable creation. His bald head a constant reminder that Baptiste is now fighting a foe that is immune to his insight and reason, the detective is as affable and softly-spoken as ever, with only his new haircut and intense stare suggesting that this is a less patient, more aggressive Julien.

When the series ended in November 2016, there appeared no firm plans for The Missing. The Williams brothers’ heavy workload suggested that if there was to be a third series, it would be a way off in the future. So it was that Karyo commenced work on new projects like Mary Magdalene (2018) and the French crime drama Animal War (2018) while us fans were left to ponder what might have been.

Eventually, this pondering came to an abrupt end as it was announced that Baptiste would return in his own spin-off series. Written once again by the Williams brothers, Baptiste finds the title character holidaying with his good lady wife in Amsterdam, only for their vacation to be interrupted by the apparent abduction of a prostitute. With the woman’s uncle (Tom Hollander) desperate to uncover her whereabouts, the detective is called into service. Much skulduggery and intrigue ensue. Or at least, that’s what we have to assume. As with The Missing, the writers are keeping their cards very close to their chest.

Wherever the story takes Baptiste, we will only be too happy to follow. For as Cracker’s Fitz was to Robbie Coltrane so the dogged detective is to Tchéky Karyo, the character that’s enabled him to demonstrate the true extent of his talent.

To hear him read the phone book would be a pleasure.

■ Baptiste airs on BBC One on Sunday evenings

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