Raul Julia reached New York in 1964, a time when people made easy assumptions.
He was an actor from Puerto Rico; surely, that meant lots of street-smart roles. One talk-show host said she’d heard he didn’t speak English when he got there.
“Of course he spoke English,” theater director Oskar Eustis said. “He spoke beautiful English.”
Julia (shown here) – the subject of a PBS profile Friday — grew up around English-speaking teachers. He was college-educated, Shakespeare-trained. “He was very well-educated …. Latinos don’t (only) come under stressful conditions,” actor Esai Morales said. “We are not always struggling to survive.”
Mostly, friends say, Julia wanted to entertain. He was a fun guy – but also a pensive guy. “He was as serious as a heart attack,” said actor Edward James Olmos. “But funnier than a heart attack. He was really one of a kind.”
Which is why people remain interested in him, 25 years after his death (a stroke, following stomach troubles) at 54.
These days, Julia may be best-known for the two “Addams Family” movies. “It’s a campy piece,” Morales said, “but he didn’t treat it that way.” But that was just one piece of a sprawling career.
Back in Puerto Rico, his father was an electrical engineer who started a successful restaurant; his mom sang in church and he performed … constantly.
At a Catholic school, Julia started theater in first grade. By his teens, he was big on Shakespeare; after college, he played a rock star in the musical “Bye Bye, Birdie.”
In New York, he was ideal for Shakespeare In the Park via The Public Theater. “He was the greatest partner Meryl (Streep) ever had,” said Eustis, who became The Public Theater’s artistic director.
After starring in “Macbeth,” Eustis said, Julia wouldn’t let go; he phoned Joe Papp, the Public Theater chief. “He said, ‘Joe, you have to give me a job. I have to work in the theater. I’ll wash dishes.”
Instead, he became house manager, then was back onstage.
But for Julia, everything was a stage. “He would stand up on top of a table and just do Shakespeare, brilliant pieces of work,” Olmos said.
Added Morales:“And if he wasn’t reciting Shakespeare, he was singing opera.”
Under this vibrant exterior, they said, was a man who was passionate about poverty, hunger and serious drama. Julia starred in “Kiss of a Spiderman” (1985). In TV movies, he played his heroes – an archbishop in “Romero” (1989), activist Chico Mendes in “The Burning Season” (1994).
By the latter, he was deathly sick, friends say. He covered it up – partly so he wouldn’t be replaced and partly because his nature remained vibrant.
One night, Morales recalled: “He sang a beautiful rendition of ‘En Mi Viejo San Juan.’ And he had his cigar and his Cognac …. He love life; it was a big party to him.”
The film drew Emmy nominations for best movie and for Olmos, Sonia Braga and its script. It won for director John Frankenheimer and for Julia. After lots of nominations – four for Tonys, three for Golden Globes, this brought his Julia’s first wins, a Globe and an Emmy.
“He never received one until he was dead,” Olmos said. “I had to receive it and I wept.”
— “American Masters: Raul Julia,” 9 p.m. Friday, PBS