The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Raul Julia
By Mother Brain
Nearly 20 years ago, there was a movie adaptation of the classic arcade game, Street Fighter. Fans of the game were initially excited to see their favorite characters in the flesh on the big screen until open day when they realized how terrible it was. Not only was it sad because it failed to live up to the hype but it was also the final motion picture of one of the finest Hispanic actors of the time: Raul Julia.
Those who were infants of the 90s most likely never heard of Raul Julia or recognize him by face. Though in my youth at the time, he could be seen almost everywhere in major Hollywood films: The Rookie, Presumed Innocent, and most notably The Addams Family franchise. Yet, Julia’s true love until the day he died was in theatre and he was a major supporter of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) as well as having an award in his name by the National Endowment for the Hispanic Arts.
Born in the Floral Park section of San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1940, Julia was the oldest of four siblings. A good portion of his family was heavily involved in performance arts: His mother Olga sang church choir and his great aunt Maria gave him the strongest inspiration to get involved with the arts. At his first Catholic private school, Colegio Espiritu Santo in Hato Rey, he portrayed the devil in a first grade play which soon followed many others. Between this and his love for Errol Flynn movies, Julia had the dreams of making it as a successful actor growing up. By seventh grade, he improved his English and indulged himself into the works of William Shakespeare. As he kept working in local shows, Julia also studied at Fordham University and later the University of Puerto Rico. He refused his parents’ wish for him to pursue a career in law in spite of some doubts of sustaining a living as a working actor.
Julia appeared in a variety of plays throughout the 1960s in Puerto Rico before moving to New York and appearing in his first Broadway play, The Cuban Thing, in 1968. As his stock as a Broadway actor went up, Julia landed two television roles: A small role on the soap opera, Love of Life, and a new PBS kids show called Sesame Street where he played Rafael the Fixit Man. Appearing in the show’s third year, Julia’s character was often seen as a positive role model for the kids on the show and teaching them Spanish words. Film, however, was the exact opposite for Julia as he was typecast as Hispanic drug users in movies opposite Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park as well as opposite Sidney Poitier in The Organization. When Julia earned a Tony Award nomination for his role as Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, he maintained a path as a theatre actor throughout the majority of the 1970s and building a reputation as a versatile talent in such work as King Lear, Where’s Charley?, and The Threepenny Opera just to name a few.
In the 1980s, Julia made the jump to Hollywood determined to avoid stereotypical Hispanic characters. He struggled early on as roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart and the film adaptation of The Tempest went unnoticed. Then in 1985, Julia accepted the role of Valentin Arregui in Kiss of the Spider Woman opposite William Hurt and Sonia Braga. Arregui was a political prisoner in a South American prison who was aligned with revolutionaries and gets caught up in a complex friendship with his homosexual cell mate. His enthusiasm for the script and in-depth research with South American rebels helped to shape a critically praised performance that led to a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor in a Drama. Other successes followed including a determined detective in Compromising Positions and Jane Fonda’s womanizing hairdresser spouse in Sidney Lumet’s The Morning After. Other critically praised roles in Moon over Parador, Tequila Sunrise and Romero put Julia number one on Variety’s “List of Busiest Hollywood Actors” and this was long before Samuel L. Jackson took that title.
1990 was one of Julia’s most prolific years in film. He played Harrison Ford’s smart, well-measured lawyer in the hit drama Presumed Innocent. Then he took an uncredited role as Cuban Revolutionary leader in Sydney Pollack’s Havana with Robert Redford. Julia believed in his worth as an actor by this point in his career and refused film credit because the producers would not put his name above the title. Unfortunately there were forgettable roles in films such as Frankenstein Unbound and Clint Eastwood’s cop thriller, The Rookie, where critics were left puzzled by the decision to have Julia (and once again Sonia Braga) play a violent German car thief when he doesn’t even try to put on an accent!
In 1991, Julia was cast in the role most recognized by the world as Gomez Adams in Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of the hit television series, The Addams Family. Julia relished in the role of the charismatic but ghoulish father originated by John Astin from the show and he had wonderful chemistry alongside Angelica Houston and Christopher Lloyd. He was also able to channel his love for Errol Flynn in scenes where Gomez would get into sword fights with Dan Hedaya’s character. The massive success of Addams Family and its sequel, Addams Family Values, made Julia very popular with young children which he embraced.
Everything was looking up career-wise for Julia until 1993. He had movies such as The Burning Season and Down Came a Blackbird about to be released. He was also in early contention for the villain in Desperado and Don Diego in the new Steven Spielberg-produced Zorro adaptation. Unfortunately, he contracted food poisoning while shooting The Burning Season in Mexico and other stomach problems, rumored to be stomach cancer, caused Julia’s health to go in decline. Refusing to quit his first love, Julia took on the role of M. Bison in the Street Fighter movie alongside Jean Claude Van Damme. He was determined to make the role memorable for his kids who were fans of the game. In the end, the film was a mess; however, Julia’s over-the-top performance was the noteworthy high point and the film was dedicated in his memory upon release just two months after his death.
Raul Julia passed away on October 24, 1994. He would win a number of posthumous awards for his performance in The Burning Season, a free acting class named in his honor at the Puerto Rico Traveling Theater, inducted in the Theatre Hall of Fame on Broadway, and the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce formed a scholarship in his name in 1997. The influence of his versatile work can be seen today through such Hispanic actors as Jimmy Smits, Benicio Del Toro, and Javier Bardem. Julia was a talent whose work will continue to live on through his body of work in film, television, and most importantly the stage. Any actor looking to make an impact in the show-business today should watch and learn from him.