Saturday, September 28, 2019

Robert Cabal

(This post is part of the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen)

The sad fact is that there were few opportunities for Latino actors in Hollywood in the Forties and Fifties. Most were condemned to playing a succession of stereotypes, from Latin lovers to Mexican bandidos. Only a few, such as the legendary Ricardo Montalbán, were ever able to break free from such casting. Robert Cabal was no different. He spent much of his career playing Latino stereotypes and various "exotic" roles. While there were some aspects of the character that were stereotypical, the role of Hey Soos (given name Jesús) on Rawhide was actually a change of pace for him.

Robert Cabal's heritage is complicated and there appears to be very little that can be said for certain. Much of this is because his father used multiple names. His father is usually given as Clement Hiram McColgan, but he apparently used the name Clement Kalei Hiram and had his name changed to Clement Hiram McColgan.  His father appears to have been Chinese in descent. Clement Hiram McColgan's birth surname appears to have been "Ching."

Robert Cabal's mother was Nina Medeiros, who according to the U.S. Census was part Hawaiian in descent. Robert Cabal was born Harold Christopher Ching on April 7 1917 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother Nina divorced his father Clement in 1938, alleging cruel treatment. Robert Cabal would then appear to be Chinese, Hawaiian, and Latinx in descent.

Regardless, after having worked as a filing clerk, young Robert Christopher McColgan began acting, using the stage name "Robert Cabal." His early years were filled with tiny, uncredited roles. He made his film debut in 1947 playing a "Mexican boy" in Ride the Pink Horse. The next several years he would play a variety of small, uncredited roles, including a bell boy in Romance on the High Seas (1948) and a bracero in Border Incident (1948). Mr. Cabal would not receive a credited role until Forbidden Jungle in 1950, in which he played a boy who had been lost in the jungle. Always looking younger than he actually was, Robert Cabal often found himself playing boys and young men. It would not be until 1952 that he would receive another credited role, playing Manuelo in Mara Maru.

It would also be in 1952 that Robert Cabal played a fairly important role in a film. In The Man Behind the Gun (1952) Mr. Cabal played a young gunslinger named Joaquin Murietta (apparently loosely based on famed Robin Hood of the West, Joaquin Murrieta) who helps Major Ransome Callicut (played by Randolph Scott) foil a plot to turn California into a slave state. While the movie itself is not one of Randolph Scott's better Westerns, Robert Cabal does prove once and for all he can play more than Hey Soos. Unfortunately The Man Behind the Gun would not improve the calibre of Robert Cabal's roles. He played a few more "exotic roles": Kumat in Escape to Burma (1955), Kumar in Jungle Hell (1956), an elephant driver in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and Moani in The Women of Pitcairn Island (1956). In Hell's Island (1955) he was reduced to playing the houseboy Miguel. His last movie role would be in 1960 in Bells Are Ringing, as an uncredited subway passenger.

While Robert Cabal's film career was not the stuff of legends, he did much better on television. He made his television debut in the Cisco Kid episode "Face of Death" in 1952. In the episode he plays Tecia, a young Native American involved with a lost Aztec treasure. While Robert Cabal's role in "Face of Death" is not a large one, it is one that is pivotal to the plot. In 1952 Robert Cabal would guest star in another episode of The Cisco Kid. "Lost City of the Incas" centred on exactly that, a lost city of the Incas. Robert Cabal played one of the Incas, Mathaozin. In both of his appearances on The Cisco Kid, then, Robert Cabal played indigenous people.

It would not be the last time that Robert Cabal played indigenous people on television. He did so again in episodes of Annie Oakley, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and Broken Arrow. It was not unusual in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies to cast Latinx actors as Native Americans. Indeed, even Ricardo Montalbán played quite a few American Indians in his career. Speaking as someone of Cherokee descent, I really can't complain about the practice too much. People of Mexican descent can trace their heritage back to the Aztecs, Mayans, Nahuas, and other indigenous peoples, making casting an actor of Mexican descent as a Native American preferable to casting an actor of purely European descent.

Robert Cabal appeared in a variety of television shows in the Fifties. As might be expected, he appeared in the anthology shows of the era. He played a Filipino named Jose in the Crossroads episode "With All My Love." He played a native on a tropical island in the Four Star Playhouse episode "The Island." Of course, he also appeared in episodic television shows as well. Among the shows he guest starred on were The Millionaire, The Lineup, Have Gun--Will Travel, Border Patrol, and Cheyenne.

Of course, to this day he is best remembered as "Hey Soos" Patines on Rawhide. Today the spelling of his name as "Hey Soos" would be borderline offensive. As to why it was spelled that way rather the proper "Jesús," reportedly the producers were worried that the average American would be offended if the credits listed a character named "Jesus," even though Jesús is a very common name among Hispanics and Latinxs. I have to confess that when I was younger I always thought it was because cowboys were largely illiterate and probably didn't know how to spell "Jesús!" Robert Cabal would play Hey Soos for very nearly the whole run of Rawhide, from its debut in 1959 to 1965 (at which point series star Eric Fleming left the show and it was largely recast).

Hey Soos is an important character in the history of Latinxs on television, although he is also a complicated one. In the late Fifties, Latinx characters, particularly those of Mexican descent, were almost never regular characters on American television shows. That Hey Soos even appeared on the show on a regular basis was then something revolutionary. It must also be pointed out that Hey Soos departed a good deal from the Mexican and Mexican American characters who sometimes appeared on the many Western TV shows of the era. He was not a bandido. He was not lazy or stupid. In fact, Hey Soos occupied an important position on Rawhide. The show centred on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. Hey Soos was the wrangler on the cattle drive. That is, he was in charge of the remuda on the drive (for those not familiar with cattleman jargon, a remuda is a herd of horses used by cowboys on ranches and on cattle drives). What is more, Hey Soos had a true gift for working with horses. Given his skill with horses, Hey Soos certainly was not stupid. Indeed, not only does Hey Soos speak more than one language (English, Spanish, and Nahuatl), but he could read both English and Spanish. Many of the other men on the drive could not read at all.

This is not to say that Hey Soos did not have some stereotypical traits. He was more religious than others on the drive, and he was also more superstitious as well. He often believes things that the other drovers entirely dismiss. An example of this is the second season episode "Incident of the Blue Fire." After St. Elmo's fire appears on the horns of some of the steers (the "blue fire" of the title), Hey Soos tells the drovers that if a stranger should show up, then death will follow. Of course, Hey Soos would not be the only superstitious character to appear on the show. In "Incident with an Executioner", a white townswoman named Madge expresses the idea of "the moon in Capricorn" exerting an evil influence. Regardless, in making Hey Soos superstitious the producers of Rawhide perpetuated the stereotype of the superstitious Mexican. As educated as Hey Soos was, one would not think he would believe such things.

Robert Cabal would not continue acting long after he left Rawhide. He guest starred on the Big Valley episode "Winner Lose All"in 1966 and the Iron Horse episode "The Bridge at Forty-Mile" in 1967. He died in Los Angeles on May 11 2004.

Sadly, Robert Cabal's career would reflect that of many actors of Latinx descent in the mid-20th Century. For the most part he was confined to small parts and often had to play stereotypes. This is made all the sadder with regards to Mr. Cabal as he had real talent. That talent was on display as Joaquin Murietta in The Man Behind the Gun and as Hey Soos in Rawhide. I have to think that if he had been born in a later era, he might have gotten many more good roles. That having been said, in one respect Robert Cabal was luckier than many actors of colour in the mid-20th Century. He will always be remembered as Hey Soos on Rawhide. For an actor to have even one memorable role in quite an accomplishment.

2 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for this look at the career of Robert Cabel. The Man Without a Gun is, as you say, not a Randolph Scott winner, but I do enjoy watching it for Robert, and for Lina Romay's nice role. We must take what we can get when it comes to the fascinating performers who deserved more from Hollywood.

Unknown said...

I love this, Terry - a much-needed spotlight on Cabal, who is all-too-often forgotten. As I read your post I wanted to kick myself for not realizing how many TV roles he'd been in that I've seen. Not much fanfare, but such a worthy career. Thank you so much for submitting this to the blogathon.

Aurora