Raul Julia

Although he was nominated for four Best Actor (Musical) Tony Awards®, and won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance, actor Raul Julia (b. San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 9, 1940; d. Manhasset, NY, October 24, 1994) was never regarded as a full-fledged star. Highly respected in dramatic, comic, and musical roles in theater, film and television, he received his greatest praise (and a Golden Globe® nomination) for his portrayal of a political activist in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), sharing a prison cell with William Hurt. His most endearing character was Gomez Addams in the macabre comedy The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel Addams Family Values (1993).

Raúl Rafael Carlos Juliá y Arcelay was the son of Olga Arcelay, a classical mezzo-soprano, and Raúl Juliá, Sr., restaurateur and first pizza baron of Puerto Rico. He was the oldest of four; his only brother Carlos Rafael died in an automobile accident in 1960. The prosperity of the pizza business assured that Raul would have the best education: his instruction at the local Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola was in the strict classical Jesuit tradition. After taking a year in New York at Fordham, and earning his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Puerto Rico, his parents urged him to go into law or medicine.

But Raul knew he was an actor from his first stage experience in first grade. He immersed himself in drama clubs, acted in local Shakespeare productions, and hosted game shows and teen programs on Puerto Rican television. Actor Orson Bean discovered Julia performing in a San Juan night club in 1964 and inspired him to move to New York City; he soon found work off-Broadway, in small and supporting roles.

In 1966 Raul Julia began – after several tries – a long and fruitful association with theater impresario Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Eventually his roles included Edmund in King Lear (1973) and the title role of Othello (video, 1979). In the meantime, he had had several hits on the Broadway musical stage, receiving a Tony Award® nomination for each of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1972), Where’s Charley? (1975), The Threepenny Opera (as Mack the Knife, 1977), and Nine (1982). From October 1977 until 1980 Raul Julia starred in Broadway’s Dracula, replacing Frank Langella.

Julia’s work in television began with an appearance on Love of Life in 1969 and three episodes of Sesame Street in 1971. Although he had played bit parts on the screen, his debut in feature films was The Organization (1971), a cop movie with Sidney Poitier. He was to make several films in the late ’70s and ’80s, some embarrassingly forgettable (The Gumball Rally 1975, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank 1983), and one, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, among the most harrowing and memorable in all filmdom. Julia was nominated for a Golden Globe® for his performance as Valentin Arregui; the film earned eight nominations in all and ten awards, among them an Oscar® for William Hurt.

Notable among his later movies are the made-for-television Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988), Moon Over Parador (1988), Romero (1989), Presumed Innocent (1990), and of course the two Addams romps. Julia also made a number of films wholly or partially in Spanish (Tango Bar, Tequila Sunrise, Havana).

In 1976 Julia married Merel Poloway, whom he had met while touring in a show called Illya Darling. They had two sons, Raul Sigmund in 1983, Benjamin Rafael in 1987.

Julia was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1991, but did not make the matter public and continued to perform. In 1992 he returned to Broadway in the revival of Man of La Mancha; as an opera fan, he was always happy to be asked to sing even though he was not classically trained. In Mexico in late 1993, working on his last major role as Brazilian rainforest activist Chico Mendes in The Burning Season (1994), his colleagues began to notice how gaunt he looked. The news of his cancer had leaked, but he still denied it, claiming that he was losing weight intentionally.

He traveled to Vancouver with the intention of starring as the villain in a video-game-inspired film Street Fighter, but he was too ill to take part in the project. Julia played a supporting role in the made-for-cable TV drama Down Came a Blackbird, his last movie. He suffered a stroke in his New York apartment in October 1994, went into a coma and died eight days later.

Julia was involved in many charitable causes and strongly supported independence for Puerto Rico. He had a goal of raising a million dollars for The Hunger Project, and often gave anonymous donations to organizations aiding third-world countries. His high school honored him in 1990 with an Ignatius Medal for his contributions to social justice, and he was given the Courage of Conscience award in 1992.

Raul Julia was awarded an Emmy® and a Golden Globe® in 1995 for his work in The Burning Season. He is the only person ever to be so honored posthumously.

 

– LEC