Jacques Tati, who passed on recently in Paris, is known by millions as the stumbling star of ''Mr. Hulot's Holiday,'' among the most popular of all French comedies, and its sequel, ''Mon Oncle,'' which won the 1958 Academy Award for best foreign film.
Many critics regard two later Hulot pictures, ''Playtime'' and ''Traffic,'' as even finer works of cinema - two of the greatest films of the '60s and '70s, some contend. Yet these expensive projects did not have broad enough appeal to earn their costs back, leading to a long hiatus for the revered comedian, who in any case was such a perfectionist that he directed fewer than half a dozen films in a career lasting more than 25 years.
Tati belonged to the great tradition of director-writer-stars that includes Buster Keaton, whom he much admired, and Charles Chaplin, whom he considered too facile. Like them, he embodied the ordinary man faced with a world too sprawling and unpredictable for his good intentions and limited resources to come to grips with. His most enduring creation, the Hulot character, was a nice but awkward man whose faith in the order of things was never quite justified by the untoward events that continually unfolded around him.
In subject, Tati's best-known films are satires of such issues as leisure activity and mechanization. In style, they are dense collages of imaginatively conceived images and sounds, assembled rigorously and precisely enough to earn the praise of leading ''serious'' filmmakers and critics. His legacy lies in the brilliant economy of his means as well as the outright hilarity of his results. It is not surprising that a new generation of moviegoers has found him and Mr. Hulot as winning as their parents did.