For any Hispanic actor working in the United States, the name Raúl Juliá inevitably evokes a sense of profound respect and admiration. The Puerto Rican-born thespian may be known more to U.S. audiences for his role as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family films, or even M. Bison in Street Fighter, but any actor serious about their craft recognizes that Juliá was one of the greatest artists of his generation. Stars of stage and screen like Luis Guzmán, Jimmy Smits, and even Helen Hunt have cited Juliá as an important influence on their work, and decades after his untimely death, his humanitarian and artistic legacy lives on in the form of schools, theaters, and awards named in his honor.
The son of a local business owner, Juliá began his acting career in his native Puerto Rico, where he was discovered by an entertainer named Orson Bean in the late 1960s. Struck by the young actor’s potential, Bean convinced Juliá to move to New York City despite his parents’ wishes for him to remain in Puerto Rico and practice law. After struggling through odd jobs to make ends meet, Juliá quickly made a splash on the New York theater scene and racked up four Tony nominations in less than a decade. When he landed a recurring role on Sesame Street in 1971, Juliá’s screen career rapidly took off as he made appearances in iconic films like The Panic in Needle Park with Al Pacino and The Organization with Sydney Poitier.
By the 1980s, Juliá was a Hollywood regular, co-starring in films alongside the likes of Desi Arnaz and John Cassavetes, and by the 1990s the 50-year-old veteran had become a household name and regularly landed starring roles in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. He also lent his support to a number of social causes, vocally advocating on behalf of Hispanic actors in the United States, creating programs for at-risk youth, and lending his support as a spokesman for The Hunger Project.
Unfortunately, Juliá’s career was cut tragically short when stomach complications ultimately led to a stroke that took his life in 1994, at the age of 54. At the time of his death, Juliá had been struggling with an unidentified illness for years, and despite his emaciated appearance, he managed to shoot three films during that time. One of those films, The Burning Season, would go on to earn him his first Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, after his death.
Here’s a look back at some of Juliá’s most iconic roles.
The Addams Family
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Arguably the film that made Juliá a household name across the United States, The Addams Family was the big screen adaptation of Charles Addams’ beloved comic strip of the same name. Juliá played Gomez Addams, the patriarch of an eccentric wealthy family with a penchant for the macabre, who reconnects with a long-lost brother named Fester. The over-the-top subject matter gave Juliá free reign to show off his Shakespearean chops as the supposed scion of Castilian royalty, and in large part thanks to his performance, the film’s strong box office performance was bolstered by solid critical reception.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Director: Hector Babenco
In this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Juliá plays a leftist revolutionary locked in a military prison during the dark years of Brazil’s military junta. His cellmate, played by William Hurt, comforts him as he reels from the effects of a slow poisoning. Directed by Argentine-Brazilian helmer Hector Babenco, the film was a critical smash hit, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. As these things go, Juliá’s powerful performance was slightly overshadowed by co-star William Hurt, who picked up an Academy Award for Best Actor, along with a BAFTA and important awards at Cannes and other festivals.
La Gran Fiesta
Director: Marcos Zurinaga
In addition to his prolific Hollywood career, Juliá did his part to foment a Puerto Rican film industry, and was known to offer his services at little or no cost to local filmmakers. La Gran Fiesta is widely considered to be one of the greatest Puerto Rican films ever made, and Juliá nearly stole the show with his turn as a drunken Bohemian scion of am aristocratic family. Taking place during World War II, La Gran Fiesta dramatizes a night of intrigue at a farewell for a high-class casino on the verge of being requisitioned as a military base for the U.S. Navy. The film’s underlying themes of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations no doubt inspired the lifelong advocate for Puerto Rican independence to sign up for the role.
Director: John Duigan
As Juliá’s fame grew, he began showing his true stripes as an advocate for Latin American social causes. Just in the last five years before he passed, Juliá made two biopics about Latin American social crusaders. Romero profiles Salvadoran activist Archbishop Óscar Romero, who spoke out vehemently against the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran government during the country’s civil war, and was ultimately assassinated while giving mass. The film received generally positive reviews, but as usual, it was Juliá’s performance that captivated critics.
Director: Steven E. de Souza
Yes, Juliá’s final role was as the villain M. Bison on the cartoonish adaptation of a two-dimensional competitive fighting video game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Why? Purportedly Juliá viewed the role as a chance to spend more quality time with his two sons, who were fans of the video game franchise and allegedly helped him prepare for the role. Despite being visibly ill, Juliá gave his all to the performance, but it wasn’t enough to save what turned out to be a critical disaster. At least, we can assume, he had fun along the way.