Monday, September 26, 2016

He Never Slowed Down: Cesar Romero

"I'm 86 and my doctor used to tell me to slow down--at least he did until he dropped dead." Cesar Romero

During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was often difficult for Hispanic actors to find good roles. Many found themselves typecast as stereotypical Latin lovers. Others found themselves playing stereotypical Mexicans in Westerns. Only a very few Hispanic actors were able to break free of the stereotypes Hollywood often elected to cast them as. One of those actors was Cesar Romero. Best known as The Joker on the classic TV show Batman today, throughout his career he played a wide array of roles. What is more, he had a remarkably long career. His first role was in 1933. His final role was in 1998 (the film The Right Way was not released until four years after he died). What is more, he not only appeared in movies, but on radio shows, television, and on Broadway as well.

Cesar Julio Romero Jr. was born on  February 15 1907 in New York City. Not only was he was born into wealth, but into a family of some prestige as well. His mother, concert pianist Maria Mantilla, was said to be the daughter of Cuban poet, essayist, philosopher, and national hero José Martí. His father, Cesar Julio Romero Sr., was a sugar magnate. Unfortunately in 1922 the Cuban sugar market crashed. As s result the Romero family saw a dramatic downturn in their income. Young Cesar Romero took a job as a courier at the First National Bank in New York City. Fortunately Mr. Romero would not be stuck in that job for long, as he soon began making a living from his natural talent as a dancer with partner Lisbeth Higgins. Mr. Romero used his income as a dancer to support his family financially. Indeed, he would continue to support his family for the rest of his life, well after he attained success as an actor.

Cesar Romero's success as a dancer ultimately brought him to Broadway. In 1929 he made his debut on Broadway in The Street Singer. In 1930 he appeared one more time on Broadway in Dinner at Eight. His appearances on Broadway would lead to a contract with MGM. Given that Cesar Romero was handsome, tall, and naturally charming, one would think he would have been cast in romantic roles immediately. Instead he made his film debut in The Shadow Laughs in 1933 playing Tony Rico, the henchman of gangster Jack Bradshaw.

Fortunately Cesar Romero would not be stuck playing gangsters for the rest of his career, as he soon found himself cast in a variety of other roles. In The Thin Man (1934) he played Chris Jorgenson, Mimi Wynant's deadbeat husband. In Cheating Cheaters (1934) he played the romantic lead Tom Palmer, who also happened to be a jewel thief.  In Cardinal Richelieu (1935) he played Count Andre de Pons. Like many Hispanic actors of the time, Mr. Romero found himself cast as a number of different ethnicities.  In Clive of India (1935) he played historical figure Mir Jafar, the first Nawab of Bengal. In Wee Willie Winkie (1937) he played East Indian rebel chieftain Koda Khan. In Always Goodbye (1938) he played an Italian count, Giovanni 'Gino' Corini. Of course, as would be expected, early in his career Cesar Romero found himself playing Latin lovers in such films as The Devil Is a Woman (1935) and Hold 'Em Yale (1935).

The late Thirties saw Cesar Romero cast in Westerns, among which would number one of his most famous roles. He played Lopez in Return of the Cisco Kid (1939) and then Doc Halliday (a fictionalised version of Doc Holiday) in Frontier Marshall (1939).  It was with The Cisco Kid and the Lady (1939) that Cesar Romero would play the title role of the Cisco Kid. Mr. Romero played Cisco in a total of six movies.

It was in the early Forties that Hollywood finally made use of some of Cesar Romero's strongest suits--his talents for dancing and comedy. He appeared in the comedies He Married His Wife (1940) and Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941). He appeared in the musicals Dance Hall (1941), Week-End in Havana (1941), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), and Coney Island (1943), among others. With the outbreak of World War II, Cesar Romero volunteered for the United States Coast Guard. He served in the Pacific Theatre and saw action in battles at Tinian and Saipan. During his time Mr. Romero insisted that he be treated like any other member of the crew and was known as one of the best winch operators. He left the Coast Guard with the rank of Chief Boatswain's Mate.

It was following the war that Cesar Romero truly established himself as an actor with a good deal of versatility. Among his first roles following the war was that of historical figure Hernán Cortés in the swashbuckler Captain from Castile (1947). The post-war era saw Cesar Romero appear in several adventure films, playing a variety of roles. He was the hero, Major Joe Nolan, in the science fiction film Lost Continent (1951). He was also the hero in the Mexican swashbuckler El corazón y la espada (1953--Sword of Granada was its English title). He played the villainous vizier Firouz in Prisoners of the Casbah (1953).

Cesar Romero also continued to appear in musicals and comedies, much as he had in his pre-war years. He appeared in Betty Grable's musicals That Lady in Ermine (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949).  He also appeared in the musical Happy Go Lovely (1951). He appeared in the comedies Julia Misbehaves (1948) and Love That Brute (1950). Of course, Cesar Romero also appeared in films noirs and other crime films (in some which he played the lead),  including Once a Thief (1950), FBI Girl (1951), Lady in the Fog (1952), and Street of Shadows (1953). Mr. Romero even made a few Westerns, including Vera Cruz (1954) and The Americano (1955).

Of course, the Fifties saw much of Cesar Romero's career shift to television. He made his television debut in 1948 on the TV show Variety. He starred in the TV show Passport to Danger. He also made several guest appearances, including a memorable one on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. On Zorro he played  Don Diego de la Vega's uncle Esteban de la Cruz in three episodes. He also guest starred in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, Private Secretary, Climax!, Wagon Train, Studio One, and Death Valley Days.

Cesar Romero ended the Fifties and began the Sixties playing one of his best known roles, that of gangster Duke Santos in Ocean's 11 (1960). Duke Santos was urbane, charming, and roguish, but at the same carried enough menace that he could convincingly force anyone to go along with him. Cesar Romero appeared in a variety of roles in movies in the Sixties. He played the Marquis Andre de Lage, governor of Haleakaloha in Donovan's Reef (1963). He played the magician Duquesne in Two on a Guillotine (1965). He played the title gangster in Madigan's Millions (1968). That having been said, his most famous role in the Sixties--in fact, possibly the most famous role of his career--was that of The Joker on the TV show Batman. He was the first actor to ever play the Crown Prince of Crime and appeared in 22 episodes of the show, as well as the feature film Batman (1966). He also guest starred on such shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Burke's Law, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ben Casey, Daniel Boone, and Bewitched.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies Cesar Romero played millionaire businessman and criminal mastermind  A.J. Arno in Disney's trilogy of comedies set at Medfield College: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). He also played in such films as The Western The Proud and Damned (1972) and the horror movie The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974). He made several guest appearances on television during the decade. On Chico and the Man he played Chico's absentee father. He played Dracula in an episode of Night Gallery. He appeared three times on Alias Smith and Jones as Mexican rancher Armendariz. Mr. Romero also guest starred on such shows as Nanny and the Professor; Love, American Style; The Mod Squad; Ironside; Medical Centre; Vega$; and Charlie's Angels.

In the Eighties Cesar Romero had a recurring role on the short lived series Berrenger's. He had a regular role on Falcon Crest as billionaire Peter Stavros. He guest starred on The Golden Girls as Sophia's suitor Tony. He also guest starred on the shows Fantasy Island, Matt Houston, Hart to Hart, Magnum P. I., The Love Boat, and The Tracey Ullman Show. He appeared in the films Lust in the Dust (1985), Mortuary Academy (1988), Judgement Day (1988), and Simple Justice (1989).

Cesar Romero turned 80 in 1987. Many actors would have retried by that point, but Mr. Romero never did. He guest starred on Jack's Place in 1992 and made a second guest appearance on Murder, She Wrote that same year. He died on January 1 1994 from bronchitis and pneumonia. His final appearance was in the film The Right Way, which would not be released until 1998, four years after his death.

While Cesar Romero's two best known roles were rather villainous (Duke Santos and The Joker), in real life Cesar Romero was the exact opposite of a villain. As mentioned above, in the Coast Guard he insisted on being treated simply as another one of the crew and was known for his hard work. He was devoted to several charities, including serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless each year. After attaining fame and fortune he supported his family for the rest of his life. Reportedly he was a consummate professional and a total gentleman. If anyone who knew Mr. Romero had bad words to say about him, I have never read them.

Of course, he was also a man of considerable talent. Over the years he played a number of Latin lovers and gangsters. He also played a number of "exotic" roles. Beyond those roles he played a wide variety of others. He was the Cisco Kid. He was Mir Jaffar, Doc Halliday, and Hernán Cortés. Throughout his long career he played everything from mayors to doctors to detectives. Arguably Cesar Romero was at his best playing suave villains, the sort of characters with a mischievous streak and plenty of charm, while still seeming menacing all the while. It should be little wonder, then, that he is so well remembered as Duke Santos, The Joker, and  A.J. Arno, all three villains with plenty of charm and a sense of humour, while still making it clear that they were serious about their business. Cesar Romero could have easily made a good living simply playing Latin lovers. That he played so much more demonstrates just how talented he actually was.

1 comment:

Raquel S. said...

Thank you for your excellent contribution to De Pelicula! I loved researching Cesar Romero. What an interesting guy. This was a wonderful overview of his long and varied career.