Entertainment News

New film explores legacy of late Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá

AP

Members of Generation X may know Raul Julia for his energetic and playful role as Gomez Addams in the 1991 movie adaptation of “The Addams Family.” Others may think of Julia 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 Garcia, 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.

“Raul Julia: 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 Julia 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. Julia died in 1994 at the age of 54 due to complications from a stroke.

The documentary includes footage of Julia 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 Julia depict the outcast Edmund in “King Lear.” Del Toro would later recall being blown away by Julia in the musical “Nine,” a work based on Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film “8½.”

In each of his roles, Julia 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.”

Julia, 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 Julia 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,” Julia said in one interview.

During his time on Broadway and in film, Julia stood in contrast to the darker artistic world of Nuyorican performers like Miguel Pinero who crafted images of sexual violence, drug addiction and poverty.

His surviving sons and widow, Merel Poloway, remember Julia as a devoted father.

Del Toro would say he kept trying to achieve his dream to become an actor because of Julia 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.