By RUSSELL CONTRERAS, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Members of Generation X may know Raúl Juliá for his energetic and playful role as Gomez Addams in the 1991 movie adaptation of “The Addams Family.” Others may think of Juliá in his critically acclaimed role in the 1985 “Kiss of the Spider Woman” as revolutionary Valentin Arregui.
But to actors like Edward James Olmos, Rita Moreno, Andy García, John Leguizamo, and Benicio del Toro, the man many of them knew as Raulito served as a mentor, an advocate and a groundbreaker who paved the way to success for a generation of Latino performers.
The influential Puerto Rican actor, who opened doors for a generation of Latino artists in film and television from the 1970s through the 1990s, is the subject of a new PBS documentary.
“Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage” looks into the actor’s life from his middle-class upbringing in Puerto Rico to the streets of New York as he attempted to break into theater. Using rare footage of Juliá and interviews of Latino actors who credit him for opening doors, the film explores his fight to battle stereotypes and garner respect as a performer. Juliá died in 1994 at the age of 54 due to complications from a stroke.
The documentary includes footage of Juliá performing Shakespeare with a young Meryl Streep while defiantly interpreting The Bard’s words in a Puerto Rican accent. James Earl Jones speaks about the awe he felt watching Juliá depict the outcast Edmund in “King Lear.” Del Toro would later recall being blown away by Juliá in the musical “Nine,” a work based on Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film “8½.”
In each of his roles, Juliá was attempting to redefine what it meant to be Hispanic in the United States, a nation that has long ignored Latinos or regulated them to subservient roles in movies and in life, said Ben DeJesus, the documentary’s director.
“He meant so much to so many people,” DeJesus said. “In many ways, he was way before his time.”
Juliá, it would turn out, used his trailblazing status to help other young actors of color and bring attention to social issues like world hunger and Puerto Rican independence.
In other words, DeJesus said Juliá was “woke” before woke was a word and an easy concept to push via hashtags on social media.
“There is a great ignorance in this country about what a Hispanic person is. Period,” Juliá said in one interview.
During his time on Broadway and in film, Juliá stood in contrast to the darker artistic world of Nuyorican performers like Miguel Piñero who crafted images of sexual violence, drug addiction and poverty.
His surviving sons and widow, Merel Poloway, remember Juliá as a devoted father.
Del Toro would say he kept trying to achieve his dream to become an actor because of Juliá and all the rejections he endured decades before.
The film, a co-presentation of American Masters and VOCES, is slated to premiere Friday on most PBS stations.
Russell Contreras reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at @russcontreras.
Except for the comparison to Piñero, a known plagerist apart from his drug derelection, pedophilia and hedonism, the positive review of this documentary on Raul Julia’s life inspires a closer look at the conscientious, activist actor who, in the early years of Miriam Colon’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, performed in the streets of New York in an effort to bring theater into our communities. A true inspirational hero.
When actor and great humanitarian Raúl Juliá taught at La Familia Theater, he asked if I could assist him in writing a curriculum for his acting workshops, “I know acting, not writing lesson plans,” he told me. When I attended his acting workshops (in Central Park), Raúl requested that I read my poetry, which he admired. I was well-received and he asked the group what they experienced about how I used metaphors, voice projection, and body language to “act out” or impersonate my moods and emotions. I wanted to hide in plain sight but my dear friend asked me to practice quietude.
“If you don’t have a healthy ego,” he declared, “being a professional show-off is not for you, and you’re in the wrong business!” He suggested I use my hands less (they were flying like kung fu katas or moves). He applauded loudly, hugged me and asked if I wanted to join his troupe. I was confused, “Was this an audition, Raúl?” He took a step back, aimed those powerful big eyes at me like a mesmerizing mirror, and responded, “Poets are great actors who love playing with words.” I was hooked although I knew my deep Puerto Rican accent may be a handicap. “Be proud of your Puertoricanness,” he advised.
This beautiful man knew how to get the best out of you as a performance artist. He encouraged his acting students to be faithful to their dreams and use the elements of observation, listening skills, and love of language to capture the complexities of what it means to be human. He made you feel that you were an actor! He was real and sincere with his feedback, not criticism. You had to memorize and repeatedly relive your lines in the voices and mindsets of different characters who were ego-less. “Practice humility,” he suggested.
I was able to help this great actor create a few lesson plans. And I decided that I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be Raúl Juliá! He was, and remains, an inspirational icon and charismatic healer to all thespians across the world, who also paved the road for Latinx actors as well.
Bendiciones, Raúl. I truly miss you, José Angel Figueroa?