Long Before Jared Leto, Cuban-American Actor Cesar Romero’s Joker Was Everything

Lead Photo: Burt Ward, as Robin, Adam West, as Batman, and Cesar Romero (1907 - 1994), as The Joker. Photo by 20th Century Fox/Courtesy of Getty Images
Burt Ward, as Robin, Adam West, as Batman, and Cesar Romero (1907 - 1994), as The Joker. Photo by 20th Century Fox/Courtesy of Getty Images
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After a year of growing hype surrounding Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad, US audiences finally have the chance to judge for themselves whether the method actor is bringing anything particularly new to the role. Some observers have already pointed out similarities between Leto’s interpretation and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, but the fact is that DC Comics’ emblematic supervillain has given generations of actors the opportunity to just freak out and go wild with it.

Nearly two decades before Ledger, Jack Nicholson similarly stole the show in Tim Burton’s dark and weird 1989 film adaptation Batman, but even Nicholson’s ingenious incarnation was heavily indebted to a precedent set decades before by a Cuban-American actor named Cesar Romero.

Born in Manhattan in 1907, Romero came from a family of wealthy Cuban sugar magnates and was purported to be the grandson of José Martí on his mother’s side. After making his name as a dancer and performer in New York’s vaudeville scene, Romero headed to Hollywood in 1933 and worked his way into producer Darryl Zanuck’s stable of silver screen stars over at 20th Century Fox. By the time he was brought on to play the Joker in ABC’s classic 1966 television series, the 59-year-old Romero had firmly established himself as a Hollywood heartthrob sharing credits with everyone from Shirley Temple to Tyrone Power.

Rolling his “R” with an unmistakable Spanish touch, Romero’s Joker was characterized by a whooping laugh that came accompanied by bold, sweeping gestures. Of course, Batman was a very different creature back in the mid-60s, and ABC’s eponymous television series was chock full of color, camp, and goofy jokes. Sensing the opportunity for something over-the-top, Romero imbued his Joker with a manic energy that set the gold standard for live-action interpretations of the green-haired sociopath to this date.

Yet despite giving himself up so fully to the role, the debonair thespian was famously unable to let go of his characteristic tightly-groomed mustache. As a compromise, Batman’s makeup team caked on white powder to keep Romero in line with the comic book villain’s familiar look. Through 22 episodes aired over three seasons, the Joker provided an unpredictable foil to Batman’s do-gooder persona, and Romero even brought his interpretation to the big screen in a 1966 film based on the series.   

Since then, the Joker’s comic book counterpart has gone through a number of physical and spiritual transformations to keep him up with the cultural zeitgeist, with the character taking a distinctly darker turn in the 1980s thanks to writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Nevertheless, Romero’s truly singular performance continues to inspire a cult fan base to this day; and his effusive, maniacal spirit continues to course through more contemporary performances by the likes of Nicholson and Heath Ledger.

After Batman was taken off the air, Romero continued to have a prolific career in film and television that lasted up through 1992 — only two years before his death at age 86. Some of his more notable later roles include a turn as Freddy Prinze’s absentee father in Chico and the Man and a frequent guest star on the ’80s soap opera Falcon Crest. But as Hollywood’s comic book fever continues to smolder with no sign of abating, it seems this generation is destined to remember Romero for the pink-suited wacko he so brilliantly brought to the screen.