Philippe Noiret, a beloved French actor featured in the popular "Il Postino" ("The Postman"), died Thursday, the Culture Ministry said. He was 76.

The exact circumstances surrounding his death were not immediately known. Friends said he had been battling cancer.

Noiret was among the most familiar faces in French cinema, making more than 125 movies in a career that spanned more than half a century. Among his first big successes was Louis Malle's 1960 film "Zazie dans le metro" (Zazie in the Metro).

He made his last movie this year, "3 Amis" (Three Friends) under director Michel Boujenah.

With a face and a bearing that could portray both the middle class man or the elegant aristocrat - but not a romantic hero - Noiret conquered his audience with his exceptional skills as an actor.

Above all a French star, Noiret had his share of international acclaim, notably in Guiseppe Tornatore's 1988 "Cinema Paradiso" and in the 1994 hit "Il Postino," (The Postman) in which he played Pablo Neruda, a poet and diplomat who councils his mailman.

Noiret won his first Cesar, the French version of the Oscar award, in 1976 for the dramatic "Vieux Fusil" (Old Gun) with Romy Schneider and gained a second in 1990 with "La Vie et rien d'autre" (Life and Nothing Else).

Praise poured in as soon as Noiret's death was made public, with Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres calling the actor "a great among the greats."

"Through his voice, his allure, his panache, Philippe Noiret knew how to seize and express something within the French soul," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said. "The silhouette and the voice, so tender and familiar, will be missed by all."

Over the years, Noiret worked with all of France's top directors, playing both dramatic and comic roles and all manner of middle class men.

Bertrand Blier, who made nine movies with Noiret, said his acting and his humanity were both exceptional.

"He is someone who counted in my life ... someone who took you by the hand," Blier said.

Born Oct. 1, 1930, in the northern city of Lille, Noiret began his life as an actor with theater studies, touring with the Theatre Nationale Populaire in Paris.

Noiret is survived by his wife, Monique, and a daughter, Frederique.