When Raúl Juliá took the role of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family, he knew that role — if the film was a hit — would define him. Nevertheless, as the documentary Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage suggests, there was much more to the Puerto Rican actor than playing the dashing and lugubrious head of the Addams household. In fact, this biographical doc makes a strong case for seeing the charismatic performer not just as a trailblazing Latino performer, but as one of the best actors of his generation. With interviews with his family, friends, and a long list of celebrated Latinx icons like Rita Moreno, Benicio del Toro, Andy García, Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits, Ruben Blades and John Leguizamo, the doc is intent on putting Juliá’s career in the context of what it meant to be a success when you wore your Puerto Rican heritage as proudly as he did.
Structured around the famous As You Like It speech that gives the film its subtitle (“All the World’s a Stage”), the Ben DeJesus-directed doc begins in San Juan where Raúlito was born. It also ends there, during the celebratory wake his friends and family threw for him when he died in 1994. It is a tender portrait of a larger-than-life figure who has yet to get the due he deserves and whose body of work — from Shakespearean comedies to video game franchises — is proof of how big of a talent he was. While you wait for it to premiere on PBS this fall, find below five tidbits we learned about Juliá that’ll have you further respecting this towering giant of the stage and screen.
Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage screened as a part of Los Angeles Latino Film Festival and will air as part of American Masters September 13, 2019, on PBS.
He was "fiercely, fiercely Puerto Rican"
There is no escaping Raúl Juliá’s accent. It was part of his charm and he never tried changed it to land a role or nail an audition. The same was true of his Puerto Rican heritage. At a time where Latinos were only cast as gang members or waiters, as Rita Moreno admits, Juliá challenged everyone to think differently and to not see his last name, his background, or his accent as an obstacle. “He was fiercely, fiercely Puerto Rican,” Ruben Blades says in the film. That alone made him stand out, even if he still struggled to find work in the 1960s. He only broke through after doing street theater in Spanish. Later, he earned some modicum of success off-Broadway before landing bigger and better roles on the New York City stage.
He went toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep
Juliá’s accent was one of the things that most fascinated Joseph Papp, the man behind what’s become the famous Shakespeare in the Park productions. Here was someone who didn’t bother thinking that you had to sound British in order to make the Bard sing even if it took the actor a while to figure that out. After years of trying to imitate the posh accent he thought was needed to nail Shakespearean drama, he realized that he could bring himself to it, as he put it, “to bring my own culture, my own Puerto Rican background, my own Spanish heritage, my own rhythms, because Shakespeare is too big to be put into one little way of doing it.” By far one of the most lauded productions he was a part of was Taming of the Shrew, alongside Meryl Streep. As many of his contemporaries point out in the doc, it was a chance to see the greatest actress of her generation be met tit for tat by Juliá.
He was a consummate musical artist
Much of the joy of watching Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage is to see so many of the actors’ performances that aren’t as accessible online. Namely, his work on the New York City stage, where he first got his start. When he first moved to the city, he was a singer who hoped to become an actor. And to judge from the many musical sequences the documentary showcases, there’s no denying that Juliá’s musicality was central to how he approached any kind of performance. On stage, Juliá famously starred in the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona (based on the Shakespeare of the same name), the German classic Threepenny Opera, the original Broadway production of Nine, and even a revival of the famed Man of la Mancha. So renowned was the actor’s penchant for singing and dancing that Barry Sonnenfeld shared that they came up with the “Mamushka” number in The Addams Family because it’d feel like a waste to not have a musical set-piece when you had Juliá in your film.
He was a socially conscious performer
To look at Juliá’s late career choices is to see an actor committed to telling and amplifying stories that asked audiences to come to terms with social injustices. His leading role as Archbishop Óscar Romero (assassinated for speaking out about human rights violations in El Salvador) in Romero allowed him to bring to light the violence in Central America, while on the TV movie Burning Season, he played Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, unionist, and environmental activist who was also murdered for his beliefs. But this social consciousness was perhaps best exemplified by Juliá’s work with the The Hunger Project, which the doc stresses was central to the actor’s life and work — all his Playbill bios included his allegiance to the cause of wanting to end world hunger by the time the century was over.
He was underrated then, and remains so to an extent
Perhaps it was his accent. Perhaps it was his magnetic personality. Perhaps it was the way he could shuttle between being a clown and a leading man. But throughout his career, Juliá struggled with being taken seriously. Despite great notices on Broadway in the ’60s, he could barely get cast. (It was a phone call to Papp that eventually landed him a part in a production of Hamlet — as a house manager!) When he was developing Nine, producers from Paramount pulled their funding thinking he wasn’t bankable to helm what went on to become the Tony-winning musical of the season. His friends, co-stars and contemporaries all knew he was a genius, but critics and the industry rarely gave him the accolades he deserved. The doc singles this out when it came to arguably one of Juliá’s greatest performances: as Valentin in Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Juliá was magnetic, and while many thought he’d earn an Oscar nomination for his work, he was snubbed. It was his co-star William Hurt — who during rehearsals actually believed Juliá was even better than he was in playing his own character, the effeminate Molina — who earned that year’s golden man for Best Actor and thanked Juliá as soon as he got to the podium.