A new documentary, “Raul Julia: The World’s a Stage,” explores the life and career of the late actor, who opened a door for the Hispanic performers who followed him.
If you have a free afternoon in New York City, go to the Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, and take the elevator up to the third floor. You’ll need an appointment at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. Ask for “The Taming of the Shrew,” from the summer of 1978, at the Delacorte. You’ll sit at a monitor and watch one of the great stage performances by Meryl Streep, as Katherine the shrew, in an unruly strawberry-red wig. By the end, though, you’ll be thinking at least as much about Raul Julia, the Puerto Rican dynamo who played Petruchio, her tamer. Their scenes together are the Shakespearean equivalent of Tyson versus Holyfield—they tear into each other, pulling, scratching, speechifying. “Kiss me, Kate,” Julia tells Streep, leaning in, and she spits in his face. Another actor might have balked. Julia takes a moment, his large eyes sparkling, then lustily tongues himself clean.
A quarter-century after his death, Julia is probably best remembered as Gomez Addams, from the zippy “Addams Family” film from 1991 and its even funnier sequel, “Addams Family Values.” As Gomez, Julia is a human exclamation point: swashbuckling like Errol Flynn, twirling Anjelica Huston in a tango that literally catches fire. But bouncing off the walls wasn’t Julia’s only trick. A new “American Masters” documentary, “Raul Julia: The World’s a Stage,” which premières on Friday night, takes a wide lens on the actor’s life and career, much of which played out on the New York stage. There were his Broadway roles in the musicals “Man of La Mancha” and “Nine,” in which he played, respectively, singing versions of Don Quixote and of the Marcello Mastroianni character from “8 ½.” On film, he was a humanitarian Salvadoran priest in “Romero” and a political prisoner in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which his co-star, William Hurt, won an Academy Award. (Julia, despite Oscar buzz of his own, wasn’t nominated.)
Julia with Meryl Streep, during rehearsals for the Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
But his association with Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival is central to his legacy. Papp was decades ahead of his contemporaries when it came to color-blind casting, and he snatched up Julia for Shakespeare in the Park, to play such roles as Edmund in “King Lear” (opposite James Earl Jones) and Prospero in “The Tempest.” In a backstage interview during “The Taming of the Shrew,” Julia exclaims, “Some people think the only way to do Shakespeare is to do it like the British do it, because the British have the answer to Shakespeare! So I would imitate all the British.” He launches into a plummy version of “Othello,” and continues, “But then afterward I started realizing that I didn’t have to do it like that. I could bring myself to it. I could bring my own culture, my own Puerto Rican background, my own Spanish culture, my own rhythms.” Shakespeare benefitted from what Julia brought to his verse, which the actress Rita Moreno describes as salero. “It just means he was spicy,” she says, in the documentary. “And sexy, and tall!”
Julia was born in San Juan, in 1940, and moved to New York in 1964. It was the era of “West Side Story,” in which Moreno starred, and Hispanics were usually cast as gang members, waiters, and Frito Bandito types. One of the most moving aspects of the documentary is seeing Hispanic performers such as Benicio del Toro, John Leguizamo, Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, and Andy Garcia talk about the path that Julia cleared for them, in part by not changing his name. “He was fiercely, fiercely Puerto Rican,” the musician Ruben Blades says—a quality that opened some doors while closing others. Every “ethnic” actor faces this quandary: Do you sand down your background for a wider range of roles, or play it up and risk being niche? The best option, of course, is to show who you are and hope that producers and casting directors have some imagination, as Papp did in his 1976 Broadway production of Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” in which Julia played Mack the Knife, in a bowler hat and a monocle. (“Every train station, every bus ad had his face,” Leguizamo recalls of the poster.) His understudy, Kevin Kline, never went on; Julia told him that the only reason he would miss a performance was death.
Julia had an operatic presence: he played high highs and low lows. His facility with full-bodied despair may have owed something to the loss of his brother, Rafa, who died in a car accident in Puerto Rico, in 1960, when Julia was barely twenty. Later in life, Julia became a spiritual seeker, enrolling in Erhard Seminars Training, a self-improvement program led by the guru Werner Erhard. He travelled with Erhard to Darjeeling and sang Gregorian chants in Tibetan monasteries. When the organization launched the Hunger Project, which sought to end world hunger, Julia embraced the cause, fasting one day every month and plugging the Hunger Project in his Playbill bios. His social conscience may have led him to films such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Burning Season,” in which he played the rainforest-preservation activist Chico Mendes.
Julia in one of his most well-known roles, as Gomez in “Addams Family Values.”
After the “Addams Family” movies, Julia was poised for more mainstream success in Hollywood, but his health didn’t coöperate. In 1994, after pulling out of the star role in Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado,” he suffered a stroke. He died at fifty-four, leaving behind a wife and two sons. The footage of crowds lining up in San Juan for his funeral makes a striking contrast to this year’s images of mass protest in those same streets. It would have been fascinating to see Julia act into his sixties and seventies, his irrepressible energy doing battle with age, and to watch him flex his range in an era when Hispanic writers and directors, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alfonso Cuarón, are telling their own stories with increasing visibility. “I think that’s in the direction that he would have loved to have gone,” his wife, Merel, says. “Just, you know, ran out of time.”