Entertainment

Beloved Puerto Rican Actor Raúl Juliá Is Being Commemorated With A New Documentary About His Life And Career

A new PBS documentary, Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage focuses on the career and life of the late Puerto Rican actor. Raúl Juliá’s is best known for his role as Gomez Addams in the film adaptations of The Addams Family, but his career was full of standout performances. Before he died, Juliá received an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards, along with four Tony nominations for “Best Actor.”  

The documentary posits that Juliá wasn’t just a pioneering Latinx actor, but one of the greatest of his time. The actor’s life was cut short in 1994 when he died of a stroke at 54 years old, seemingly at the height of his career. Juliá’s body of work highlights his sprawling talent from Shakespeare to video games, he was able to capture the duality of comedy and drama. 

“The amazing and incredible story of a Puerto Rican actor who took the theater world by storm,” said director Ben DeJesus.

The documentary interviews Latinx actors he knew and influenced including Rita Moreno, Benicio del Toro, Andy García, Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits, Ruben Blades, and John Leguizamo, along with friends and family.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 9, 1940, Juliá was raised bilingual after attending English-speaking schools. While at Colegio Espíritu Santo, in first grade, he played the devil in the Catholic school’s play. This triggered his interest in theater, but it was after watching Errol Flynn perform in The Adventures of Robin Hood, that Juliá decided he would pursue acting. By seventh grade, Juliá could speak fluent English and began his interest in Shakespeare. After college, he decided against becoming a lawyer and pursued acting full-time. 

When Juliá was singing at a nightclub in Puerto Rico, he was discovered by Broadway actor Orson Bean who was charmed by his enigmatic performance. Bean convinced him to come to New York City where he made ends meet acting in the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. 

Shakespeare with a Puerto Rican accent

 During a time when Latinxs were overlooked even for Latinx roles which were often granted to white actors, Juliá never hid his Puerto Rican accent. 

”He loved his Puerto Rican roots ferociously,” his dear friend and actor Edward James Olmos said, and the islanders adored him “beyond the wildest understanding.”

In 1967, Joseph Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF) saw Juliá reading patriotic Puerto Rican poetry in a performance. Impressed, Papp offered Juliá the role of Demetrius in Titus Andronicus, where Juliá’s accent was fully embraced. In fact, when Papp died, Juliá credited the man for helping him obtain roles beyond the “Latin lover” stereotype. Papp and Juliá continued to work together, and the prestige allowed Juliá to snag his first role in a Broadway play, The Cuban Thing. 

Right up there with Meryl Streep and Big Bird

Juliá performed alongside Meryl Streep in Shakespeare in the Park’s rendition of Taming of the Shrew, accent and all. His success as a stage actor led to bigger roles on television including a recurring role on Sesame Street. Juliá received his first Tony Award nomination in 1972 for his role as Proteus in Two Gentleman of Verona. 

The Addams Family  

The actor’s award-winning theater career allowed him to break into Hollywood. In 1991, he nabbed his most celebrated role as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family film. Juliá loved the irreverent character and became a recognizable face in Hollywood.  

Honoring his Latinx heritage

The actor loved his Latinx heritage and brought it to all of his performances. Moreover, he was a huge humanitarian (who worked with the Hunger Project to end world hunger) and loved to tell stories that mattered. He was particularly honored to play the leading role of Archbishop Óscar Romero in a biopic. 

The El Salvadoran Archbishop was assassinated during a mass for being an outspoken advocate for human rights in Central America. He won a Golden Globe for his role as a Brazilian political prisoner in Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Later he portrayed Chico Mendes in HBO’s The Burning Season. 

Keeping the Legacy Alive

Juliá was rumored to have stomach cancer, and his poor health became apparent in his gaunt appearance. In 1994, he suffered two strokes, the latter causing his death. 

“I put him in the hearse with my arm draped across the casket,” said Olmos of his funeral. “I looked out the window and there were tens of thousands of people — even in balconies — people applauding him all the way through to the end.”

Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage does the necessary work of reminding American audiences of a beloved Puerto Rican actor.

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