There were few other Latino actors who had achieved the level of success Raúl Juliá reached in Hollywood before his death 25 years ago. He pursued leading roles that ranged from the comic (“The Addams Family” movies) to dramatic (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”). Before he became a movie star, Juliá was already a legend in the theater world, breaking through with crowd-pleasing performances at the New York Shakespeare Festival and playing the leading roles in musicals like “The Threepenny Opera,” “The Man of La Mancha” and “Nine.”
Esai Morales worked with Juliá twice in his career, including early on in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Tempest” and later for one of Juliá’s last performances, “The Burning Season.” “It didn’t feel like working opposite him,” said Morales. “It felt like working alongside him.”
“Despite being so disciplined and serious about his work, there was also a level of play that I find necessary to bring out the best in us as performers,” said Morales. “What he did with his work, it didn’t feel like acting.” Morales was especially impressed by Juliá’s range. “He could go from extremely silly and campy to soulful and gut-wrenchingly somber,” he said. “He really knew how to deal with the human pathos of his characters.”
Despite Juliá’s effervescent magnetism and undeniable charisma on-stage and on-screen, he had a difficult time breaking through old industry prejudices. “When Raúl came to my studio, charm came to my studio,” remembers Wynn Handman, the Artistic Director of The American Place Theatre. “He quickly absorbed what I was teaching because he was very talented and had a natural appetite for the work, but Latino actors weren’t finding much work in those days.”
“At that time, there was a lot of discrimination against Puerto Ricans,” said social worker Susie Moreno. As historian and author Silvia Alvarez Curbelo explains it, “We were not considered a part of the American citizenship. They thought of us as ‘the other.’”
Actors like musician Ruben Blades still remembers the frustrations he felt trying to break through to the English language mainstream. “We weren’t getting as many opportunities as we should have,” he said. For Edward James Olmos, it was a larger problem of who was in control. “Once you start speaking about who are the storytellers, you find that the European-based cultures tend to be able to tell their own stories much easier than non-European-based cultures,” he said.
“We never saved the day. We weren’t intelligent,” Morales said of the roles he found early in his career. “Oh, you’re going to be an actor? Great, what are you going to do? Who were you going to rape, rob and mug? It’s either that or be the victim.”
Another problem facing actors from underrepresented communities was the practice of whitewashing roles, which means re-writing a character to better match the white actor chosen for the part, or that studios would hire white actors to play ethnic roles. From the Silent Era, when Rudolph Valentino became famous for playing a Latin Lover on-screen, to Natalie Wood playing the Puerto Rican love interest in “West Side Story,” it was an easy way for Hollywood to avoid casting Latino actors.
“Whatever the reasons, there were no jobs,” said Rita Moreno, Wood’s co-star in “West Side Story.” “You were either a gang member, a waiter, or only parts where you did menial work.”
To avoid typecasting, Andy Garcia noted that many actors changed their names to get more opportunities. For example, Mexican American actor Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca became Anthony Quinn in Hollywood. “Raúl set an example of not having to do that,” said Garcia.
Raúl Juliá spoke up about the need for diversity and inclusion long before the current wave of interest on the topic. “He was fiercely Puerto Rican,” said Blades. “He was proud of being Puerto Rican.” His dedication to embracing his Puerto Rican roots made an impact on several other Latino performers both established and up-and-coming, like John Leguizamo. “At the time he was on the top of his game in New York City, he was on the poster everywhere,” he said. “It was so inspiring to see that at every train station, every bus ad had his face for ‘Threepenny Opera.'”
Juliá’s legacy is a multifaceted one. His story is a testament to his body of work, his dedication to charitable causes and his drive to prove he could be a complex leading man with a Spanish accent in a movie or play. The fight for better opportunities for Latino actors continues, as a recent study from USC Annenberg found that less than 3 percent of leading roles go to Latino talent. Juliá’s legacy remains as inspiring as ever, proving what Latinos can achieve when given the chance.