Leonardo Villar, whose star turn as Donkey Jack in “The Given Word” (also known in English as “Keeper of Promises”) made him one of Brazil’s most revered actors and helped the film clinch the top prize at Cannes in 1962, died on July 3 in São Paulo. He was 96.
The film producer Anibal Massaini, a longtime friend of Mr. Villar’s, said the cause was heart failure.
“The Given Word,” which tells the story of a man carrying a large wooden cross through Brazil’s backlands, became the first, and only, Brazilian film to win the Palme d’Or, making it a classic and Mr. Villar a movie star before it even opened in theaters. It was also the first South American film to be nominated for an Oscar — for best foreign-language film.
When the director Anselmo Duarte and the producer Oswaldo Massaini (Anibal Massaini’s father) returned from Cannes weeks later, they were paraded through the streets of São Paulo atop a fire truck — an honor usually reserved for World Cup winners. Mr. Villar, who had discreetly returned to work the day after Cannes, turned out briefly to appear atop the truck and was then, just as quickly, gone.
That was Mr. Villar’s modus operandi: He would dutifully appear for red carpets and press cocktails but never stay to socialize. A consummate professional whose fame and dedication to his craft meant that he could get whatever part he wanted, he had a distaste for the limelight — a reluctance that kept him from becoming an even bigger star.
“His work was his life,” Mr. Massaini said, adding that he had never known Mr. Villar to have been in a romantic relationship. He said Mr. Villar was survived by nieces and nephews.
Leonildo de Motta was born on July 25, 1923, in Piracicaba, a small city in São Paulo state, to Antonio Mota Viñales and Concepción Fernández Pérez, immigrants from Spain’s Andalusia region. He was the youngest of seven children.
Mr. Villar was among the first graduates of the University of São Paulo’s School of Dramatic Art in 1948. He made his first theatrical appearance in 1950 in Aristophanes’ “The Birds.” From 1954 to 1961, he was a featured player at the Brazilian Comedy Theater, where many of the country’s top actors got their start and which, despite the name, did not limit itself to comedy.
It was there that Mr. Villar originated the stage role of Donkey Jack in the “The Given Word,” written by Alfredo Dias Gomes in 1960. He recreated the character in the movie adaptation for his film debut.
In 1964, he played the lead in the film “Lampião, King of the Badlands,” which told the story of a real-life Brazilian bandit who enjoys a Robin Hood-like status there. A year later, he was named best actor at the Brasília Film Festival for his performance in the title role of “The Hour and Turn of Augusto Matraga.”
Mr. Villar made his telenovela debut in 1965 in “A Cor de Sua Pele” (“The Color of Your Skin”), beginning a long career in television, where most Brazilian actors make their money.
Mr. Villar returned to film for the 1998 crime thriller “Friendly Fire,” directed by Beto Brant. His final movie was “The Ballroom,” a 2007 musical drama by Laís Bodanzky.
Over his career Mr. Villar appeared in 42 plays, 16 films and 31 television shows, including some of Brazil’s biggest telenovelas. His last appearance was in 2010 in the telenovela “Passione.”