Monday, October 12, 2015

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon: Cesar Romero

“I’ve had a long career in this town. Hasn’t been the greatest but it’s been good and it’s been steady. And I owe a lot to this business.” –  Cesar Romero circa 1986

Imagine Hollywood in the late 1930s. A young starlet has been invited to a glamorous party but she has no one to go with. A tall, debonaire Latin man, a fellow actor, comes to her rescue. This man is Cesar Romero. He's the perfect escort and the ladies of Hollywood know it. Romero is well-dressed, good looking, has excellent manners and lifelong talent for dancing. He's an expert schmoozer and knows how to work the crowd. He is dependable and desirable, composed but still fun to be around. Romero loves parties and they loved him right back.

Cesar Romero and Joan Crawford

Romero was the escort for many actresses including Joan Crawford (they were lifelong friends and possibly more), Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Virginia Bruce, Marlene Dietrich, Agnes Moorehead and more.

Affectionately referred to as the Latin from Manhattan or Butch (a silly nickname given to him by George Murphy), Cesar Romero had a long career on the big and small screens. And wouldn't you know, it all started because he was really good at working parties.

Cesar Julio Romero Jr. was born in New York City in 1907. His father Cesar Julio Romero Sr. was a sugar broker (some accounts say he was born in Italy, others say Spain) and his mother Maria Mantilla was a Cuban-American socialite. It's said that his grandfather was Cuban national hero Jose Marti. Publicly Marti was Maria's godfather but privately he was her father, whether the connection was biological or not we'll never know. The Romero family was very affluent. They went to all the best parties, had loads of servants and little Cesar Romero went to the finest boarding schools. This all changed in the 1920s when the sugar crash left Romero Sr. without the means to provide for his family. They were able to cruise by on the patriarch's savings but this eventually ran out.

Cesar Romero and his parents. Source

There are two really important things you must know about Cesar Romero. First, he was fiercely loyal to his family and felt obligated to take care of them financially. This would go on for the rest of his life and was the driving force behind his long career in the industry. Second, he had a natural talent for dancing, acting and entertaining in general and this was boosted by his fine social skills and his knack for meeting the right people at the right time.

When his father could no longer provide for his family, Romero got a job as a courier for First National Bank in New York City. It was a soul-crushing job and he quickly looked for a way out. When he was six years old he learned how to dance, courtesy of lessons given to him by a family maid, and over the years perfected his skills. He took advantage of this during the Roaring Twenties when you could be paid to dance at supper clubs and speakeasies. Romero became one half of the Lisbeth and Romero: Aristocrats of the Dance dancing duo with partner Lisbeth Higgins. His career as a professional dancer helped keep his family afloat. Romero sought every opportunity he could. He would crash parties, hang out at speakeasies and dance with the creme de la creme.

Cesar Romero and Lisbeth Higgins (Source)
Opportunities would arise and he'd take advantage of every one of them. Theater led to Broadway and Broadway led a one year contract at MGM. Romero was off to Hollywood! And his family would follow soon after.

His first film role was as a gigolo in The Thin Man (1934). MGM didn't really know what to do with him and let his contract go. Romero however had been making lots of good connections, one of those was studio executive Darryl Zanuck. Thanks to that working relationship Romero was contracted by Universal, 20th Century and then Fox when it merged to become 20th Century Fox.

Romero was never really typecast. He didn't have a thick accent and his exotic looks could translate into multiple ethnicities. He could play the Latin lover but he was flexible enough to play a variety of roles. He could play villains, love interests and found ways to showcase his comedic skills and his dancing talents on screen. His early filmography includes The Devil is a Woman (1935), with Marlene Dietrich, Wee Willie Winkie (1937), My Lucky Star (1938), Week-End in Havana (1941) as well as the Cisco Kid films of the 1930s and 1940s. He worked in films through the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. My favorite of his roles was as Duke Santos in Ocean's 11 (1960). He's charming and mischievous and you want to hate him for throwing a monkey wrench into the works but you just can't.

Cesar Romero, silver fox

Cesar Romero never became a huge star yet he was consistent, dependable, flexible and got along with everybody. This made him an asset in the business. It didn't hurt that he aged beautifully and embraced TV when he couldn't find many film roles. Romero's second career in TV won him a different kind of celebrity when he played the Joker on The Batman series in the late 1960s.

“A lot of people knock the old studio system, but I thought it was wonderful. You had such great security.” – Cesar Romero

Romero thrived in the studio era and mourned the loss of it. As time progressed and as many of his fellow actors and actresses passed away he looked back fondly at a time when elegance reigned supreme, everyone had a contract and even though you might work at different studios you all knew each other intimately because of the plethora of private Hollywood parties. Although Romero thrived on TV, he missed his motion picture colony of old.

“I never considered myself a Latin actor. I was born in New York City my mother was born in Brooklyn.” –  Cesar Romero circa 1986

Romero never truly embraced his Latino culture although he never denied it either. He didn't express interest in exploring the history or writings of his revolutionary grandfather Jose Marti. Even when he was invited to Cuban cultural events in Florida, he would politely participate with modest interest. He spoke Spanish, not fluently but enough to get by. Romero did inherit a very strong belief in the importance of family thanks to his Latino upbringing. He took care of his parents, brother, two sisters, nieces and nephews and some of them even lived with him on his estate. Romero never married and while this led to rumors about his sexuality, friends claim that he was too busy socializing, working and taking care of his family to settle down.

Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero

Interesting fact about Cesar Romero: he was best friends with fellow actor Tyrone Power. They once took a 10 week trip through Central and South America and back up through the United States. Power and Romero were neighbors and Power's untimely death 1958 really crushed Romero.

There is lots more to discuss about Romero. His trademark mustache, his time in the US Coast Guard during WWII, his chain of men's clothing stores called Cesar Romero Ltd, that one time he was on The Golden Girls TV show. But there isn't enough time to cover it all. Romero lived a good life; a long and interesting one.

Cesar Romero's charm didn't just come from being a good looking entertainer. He was an affable man who loved his work, loved his family and loved life. Romero died in 1994 leaving behind a body of work as varied and as entertaining as the man himself.

This post is my contribution to the Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen

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