En español | 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 Andy Garcia, John Leguizamo, Rita Moreno, Edward James Olmos 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 streaming online until Oct. 11.
He left the stage too soon
Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage looks into the actor’s life from his middle-class upbringing in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to the streets of New York as he attempts 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 age 54 because of 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 recalls being blown away years later 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 relegated 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.”
Mentor interested in social justice
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 — Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland — performers such as 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 says he kept trying to achieve his dream to become an actor because of Juliá and all the rejections he endured decades before.