Jourdan was born Louis Robert Gendre in Marseille, France, in 1921, one of three sons of Yvonne (née Jourdan) and Henry Gendre, a hotel owner. He was educated in France, Turkey, and the UK, and studied acting at the École Dramatique. While there, he began acting on the professional stage, where he was brought to the attention of director Marc Allegret, who hired him to work as an assistant camera operator on Entrée des Artistes (The Curtain Rises).
Allegret then cast Jourdan in what should have been his first movie, Le Corsaire in 1939 opposite Charles Boyer. Filming was interrupted by the Second World War and was never resumed.
Jourdan was too young for army service and was hired by Marcel L'Herbier to appear in La Comédie du bonheur (1940) in Rome. He was making Untel Père et Fils in that city when Italy declared war on France.
Jourdan returned to France, and appeared in Premier rendez-vous (1941) with Danielle Darrieux, shot in Paris. He spent a year on a work gang. Jourdan was ordered to make German propaganda films which he refused to do and fled to join his family in unoccupied France.
There he started making movies again, ten films in two years. They included several for Allegret: Parade en sept nuits (1941); L'Arlésienne (1942) with Raimu, The Beautiful Adventure (1942); Les Petites du quai aux fleurs (1944); Twilight (1944).
He was in The Heart of a Nation (1943) with Raimu; La Vie de Bohème (1945).
His father was arrested by the Gestapo; months later he escaped, and joined the French Resistance. "I was given work to do and I did it", said Jourdan later of his time in the resistance. "I worked on illegal leaflets, helping to print and distribute them."
After the liberation of France in 1945, he returned to Paris with his childhood sweetheart, Berthe Frédérique (nicknamed "Quique").
Cited by author James McKay as the "epitome of the suave Continental", Jourdan was spotted in a French film by a talent scout working for David O. Selznick, who offered the actor a contract. His first American film was The Paradine Case (1947) starring Gregory Peck. The movie is a drama directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who did not want Jourdan cast as the valet in the film. Jourdan frequently argued with Selznick, who put him on suspension a number of times for refusing roles.
With Joan Fontaine, Jourdan starred in the Max Ophüls film Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). David Thomson in 2010 observed how his performance as Stefan Brand altered as the character aged over the extended period of the film's narrative: "I notice how his way of talking has changed. The younger Stefan was boyish, eager and open. Ten years later, the man is filled with self-loathing and fake ironies." It was a "signature performance" from Jourdan, Thomson wrote in Have You Seen?, he was "handsome yet a touch empty; romantic yet not entirely there." John Houseman, the film's producer, "felt he lacked sex appeal, but that shortcoming serves very well as his defect of memory," a significant element of the film's plot. In Hollywood, Jourdan became friends with several stars who shared his love of the game of croquet.
Enterprise borrowed him for No Minor Vices (1948), a box office flop. It was released by MGM, who borrowed Jourdan to appear in Madame Bovary (1949).
At 20th Century Fox, Jourdan played the lead in a remake of Bird of Paradise (1951). The studio kept him on the appear in Anne of the Indies (1951). He was in a comedy, The Happy Time (1952).
He was reunited with Joan Fontaine for Decameron Nights (1953) then returned home to France to make Rue de l'Estrapade (1953).
After appearing in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Jourdan made his Broadway début in the lead role in the Billy Rose stage adaptation of André Gide's novel, The Immoralist. He returned to the Great White Way for a short run in 1955, and also that year he made his American TV début as Inspector Beaumont in the TV series Paris Precinct.
In 1956, he appeared in the film The Swan playing the role of "Dr Nicholas Agi" along with Grace Kelly and Sir Alec Guinness for MGM. This was Kelly's last film, and lost money at the box office. More popular was Julie (1956) a thriller where Jourdan tormented Doris Day.
He returned to France to play the male lead in The Bride Is Much Too Beautiful (1956) with Brigitte Bardot as the lead actress, and Escapade (1957). In Britain he appeared in a swashbuckler, Dangerous Exile (1957).
Jourdan appeared in his biggest hit to date playing the romantic lead alongside Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier in the film version of the novella by Colette, Gigi (1958). This film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
He enjoyed another hit with The Best of Everything (1959), an all star romance in the vein of Three Coins in the Fountain. Jourdan co-starred with Frank Sinatra, Chevalier and Shirley MacLaine in the musical Can-Can (1960).
He travelled to Italy to appear in a peplum, Amazons of Rome (1961). Then it was back to France to star in a version of The Count of Monte Cristo (1961), a massive hit in France. Disorder (1962) was an Italian-French comedy, Mathias Sandorf (1963) was based on a novel by Jules Verne.
For MGM he made The V.I.P.s (1963), another all star melodrama, and a big hit.
Jourdan also sang in the Alan Jay Lerner/Barton Lane stage musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), at least during its out-of-town tryout at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. He was replaced as leading man by John Cullum before the show reached Broadway.
He supported Ann-Margret in Made in Paris (1966) for MGM, then returned to Europe: The Sultans (1967), To Commit a Murder (1967), Cervantes (1967).
To Die in Paris (1968) was a US TV movie and A Flea in Her Ear (1968) a Hollywood financed farce. There were more TV movies: Fear No Evil (1969), Run a Crooked Mile (1970), Ritual of Evil (1970), The Great American Beauty Contest (1973).
In later years, Jourdan also appeared on television, including 1977's Count Dracula for the BBC and as a murderous chef in the 1978 Columbo episode Murder Under Glass. He later played Anton Arcane in the movie Swamp Thing (1982) and in its sequel The Return of Swamp Thing (1989).
During the 1970s, Jourdan recorded a series of spoken word albums of the Babar the Elephant books that were released by Caedmon Records. In 1983, Jourdan played the villainous Kamal Khan in the James Bond movie Octopussy. He played the role of Pierre de Coubertin in The First Olympics: Athens 1896, a 1984 TV series about the 1896 Summer Olympics.
His last film role was in Year of the Comet (1992).
On 11 March 1946, Jourdan married Berthe Frédérique. The marriage produced one child, Louis Henry Jourdan, born on 6 October 1951. Louis Henry Jourdan died of a narcotics overdose at the age of 29 on 12 May 1981; his body was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Berthe Jourdan died in 2014.
After his retirement from acting in 1992 Jourdan lived in Los Angeles. In July 2010 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, an honor that he received accompanied by friends, including Sidney Poitier and Kirk Douglas.
Jourdan has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6153 and 6445 Hollywood Boulevard.
Jourdan died at his home in Beverly Hills on 14 February 2015 at the age of 93. His body was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.Serena Blandish by S.N. Behrman – La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, California (8–15 August 1948; with Jennifer Jones, Constance Collier, Mildred Natwick)
The Immoralist – Royale Theatre, New York (8 February 1954 – 1 May 1954; with James Dean and Geraldine Page)
Tonight in Samarkand – Morosco Theater, New York (16 February 1955 – 12 March 1955; with Pernell Roberts and Theodore Bikel)
Caprice adapted by Jean Pierre Aumont – pre Broadway tryouts (spring 1959; with Claude Dauphin)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever – Colonial Theater, Boston (October 1965)
The Marriage-Go-Round by Leslie Stevens – national tour (1970; with Vivian Blaine)
Private Lives by Noël Coward – national tour (1973; with Barbara Rush)
The Pleasure of His Company – Arlington Park Theater, Chicago (1975; with Lana Turner)
13 Rue de l'Amour – Arlington Park Theater, Chicago (with Leslie Caron); Phoenix Theatre London (1976; with Glynis Johns), Circle in the Square Theater, New York City (16 March 1978 – 21 May 1978; with Patricia Elliott) and Westport Country Playhouse (1978; with Taina Elg)
Present Laughter – John Drew Theater, East Hampton, New York (July 1979)
12 Rue de l'Amour – Melbourne and Sydney Australia (July–August 1980; with Leslie Caron)
Gigi – road tour (1984–85)