Suave, elegant, and incredibly versatile, Raul Julia (1940-1994) was among the most critically respected stage and screen actors of his generation. Though perhaps best known for his role as Gomez Addams in the Addams Family films of the 1990s, Julia starred in more than 100 productions since 1964, the year he left his native Puerto Rico for the United States. Julia was also a tireless humanitarian who used his celebrity status to draw attention to causes he supported.
Raul Julia was born Raul Rafael Carlos Julia y Arcelay in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 9, 1940. The son of upper-middle-class Roman Catholic parents, Julia was the oldest of four children. His father, Raul, was a North American-educated engineer who in 1947 had made a successful (if not exactly lateral) transition to the restaurant business; the elder Julia's eatery, La Cueva del Chicken Inn (The Chicken's Cave Inn), became known not for its numerous chicken dishes, but for its savory mainland export: pizza.
The success of La Cueva del Chicken Inn (which in 2001 was still in operation), and the resulting economic stability of the Julia family, ensured young Julia an above-average education. His early schooling at the Colegio Espiritu Santo de Hato Rey came from North American nuns; it was from these nuns that Julia began to learn English. Julia spent high school immersed in the rigorous classical curriculum of the Jesuits at Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola de Rio Piedras. He briefly studied at the Fordham University School of Law in New York; and, in 1964, he received his degree from the University of Puerto Rico.
After graduating from college, Julia faced a difficult decision: to follow his parents' wishes by continuing to pursue a career in law; or to follow his heart by pursuing a career in the theater. From as early as age five, Julia had been bitten by the acting bug. Although he would be officially "discovered" at age 24 by the American actor Orson Bean, Julia gave his debut performance, as the Devil, in a first-grade play. "I came onstage and I sort of let go and started having a fit," he told Cigar Aficianado magazine in 1993. "My parents thought, 'Oh, my God! What's wrong with him? He's possessed or something.' All of a sudden, I stood up and started saying my lines. From then on, that was it. I knew there was something special about the theater for me, something beyond the regular reality, something that I could get into and transcend and become something other than myself."
Though they didn't approve of his decision to enter the theater, Julia's parents didn't discourage their son from pursuing his dream. In 1964, like Jose Ferrer, Rita Moreno, and other notable Puerto Rico natives before him, Julia left his homeland to begin life as an actor in New York City. His parents supported him financially for the first year, but, as Julia told Cigar Aficianado in 1994, "I made the mistake of telling them, 'I don't need you anymore.' I was making $500 a week playing in Bye-Bye Birdie at the Dallas state fair, and I'm saying to myself, 'I'm set.' Boy, was I sorry." As the financial support from his parents dried up, the paid acting jobs followed suit. Back at home in New York, Julia found himself borrowing money from a roommate and eating scraps to survive. But the industrious actor refused to sit passively: He worked as a Spanish instructor, sold magazine subscriptions, and even took a course to sell department-store pens before, in the late 1960s, his acting career took a great leap forward.
Though Julia had already been gaining recognition for smaller roles off Broadway, a 1968 production of The Cuban Thing found the actor making his first appearance on a Broadway stage. From there, he said in 1994, "It was like a progression of things. I did one thing. People saw me. Then I'd do another thing. I got more recognized." In 1972 he received the first of his four Antoinette Perry Award (Tony Award) nominations, for his role as Proteus in the musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he worked closely with director and producer Joseph Papp, the renowned New York Shakespeare Festival founder who worked to bring both Shakespearean classics and modern works to the general public. Julia appeared in more than a dozen Papp productions, including the 1976 revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, for which he and the director both received 1977 Tony Award nominations. Papp, who died in 1991, once said of Julia, "He was always outrageous in his acting choices. He's larger than life all the time when he's on the stage. He doesn't mind falling flat on his face doing something dangerous." Remembering Papp in 1993, Julia said, "We became like father and son. He saw what I could offer; he didn't look at my ethnic background. He was a great man with a great vision."
Julia's stage performances revealed an actor with incredible range. He was equally comfortable in comedies, in dramas, and in musicals; and though he retained his Puerto Rican accent throughout his lifetime, he never allowed himself to be pigeonholed as an exclusively "Latin actor." He earned a reputation among directors and producers as a tireless performer, one whose exhaustive character research and consummate professionalism marked him as a model talent. Whether he was playing Dracula (1978), Othello (1979, 1991), or Mack the Knife (1976), Julia injected his stage roles with an enigmatic presence that stretched across cultural lines.
Julia was vocal about his disregard for television. Nevertheless, throughout the 1970s he accepted a few minor TV roles, appearing on The Bob Newhart Show and the soap opera Love of Life, and playing the handyman Rafael on the children's show Sesame Street. Although Hollywood seemed to be the logical next step in his career (previously he had appeared in a handful of TV movies), Julia was hesitant to commit to the big screen. "I didn't resist [the movies], but I wasn't eager to get into them, either," Julia said in 1994. "I was [in New York]. I was happy doing theater. I was even offered some things that I didn't really feel were right for me for a lot of money, more money than I was making in the theater. Even Joe Papp, toward the end, was saying, 'Raul, I know you're committed to the theater; you're committed to the New York Shakespeare Festival, but, you know, think about doing movies, too."'
Papp's advice proved to be sound. Julia made his first North American film appearance in 1969; and though he continued to appear both on and off Broadway, by the mid-1980s he had moved almost exclusively from the stage to the screen. The movies dramatically increased Julia's public profile, yet he preferred to take smaller roles that he found to be closer to his heart. For his co-starring role as the South American political prisoner Valentin Arregui in 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman, he received a Golden Globe Award nomination. In 1989, he played the lead role in Romero, the true story of the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop and political activist Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989, film critic Roger Ebert described Julia's Romero as "an interesting one, restrained and considered. His Romero is not a firebrand but a reasonable man who cannot deny the evidence of his eyes and his conscience."
During his lifetime Julia appeared in more than 40 films, among them The Eyes of Laura Mars; Frankenstein Unbound; Presumed Innocent; The Rookie; Street Fighter; and Mack the Knife, in which he reprised his 1976 stage role alongside thespian Richard Harris and The Who singer Roger Daltrey. But it was not until 1991 that he would play his most famous role, as the eccentric patriarch Gomez Addams in the film adaptation of the 1960s television series The Addams Family. Both The Addams Family and its sequel, Addams Family Values, were box-office smashes: The dark, eccentric comedies benefited both from creative screenplays and from exceptional casting (Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci). Even though Julia would win three major film-industry awards for his 1994 role in the HBO production The Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story, he would never eclipse his role as the dark, dashing, and devilish Gomez Addams.
Julia gave one of his final screen performances as the lead in The Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story. His character, Chico Mendes, was a martyred South American environmental activist and union leader who was assassinated in 1988 during his fight to keep Brazil's rainforests intact. For Julia, himself a longtime human-and environmental-rights activist, the role of Mendes was an especially beloved one. Together with his wife, the actress Merel Poloway Julia, and their two sons, Raul Sigmund and Benjamin Rafael, Julia contributed both time and money to The Hunger Project, a New York City-based organization dedicated to eradicating world hunger. He told author David Ellis, a longtime friend and the originator of the textbook series Becoming a Master Student, "My commitment to end hunger inspires my acting. When I'm tired disgusted, bored, or just don't feel like it, I remember that the more successful I become, the more of a difference I can make."
Julia also donated his time and his name to other causes, including at-risk-youth mentoring, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and human rights in Latin America. He was a member of the Latino/Hispanic cultural organizations Hola, Nosotros, Miriam Colon's Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, and the National Council of La Raza. Both Nosotros (founded in 1970 by the actor Ricardo Montalban) and the National Council of La Razas honored Julia with awards for promoting a positive image of Hispanic culture. He was also chair of the Joseph Papp Celebrity Coalition for Racial Harmony, and a board member of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the New York Council for the Humanities, the Breakthrough Foundation, and the National Theatre of the Deaf. In June 1993 the New York Shakespeare Festival presented Julia with the fourth annual Susan Stein Shiva Award for his ongoing work in theater.
Sadly, Julia would not live to accept one of his final, most prestigious film-industry awards: a best-actor Emmy for his role as Chico Mendes. On Monday, October 24, 1994, following complications from a stroke, Julia passed away at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, New York. News of Julia's death came as a surprise to the actor's fans; Julia had reportedly been battling terminal stomach cancer for more than a year, but he had not gone public with the news of his illness. He received a state funeral, at which thousands of Puerto Rican citizens paid their respects, and was buried alongside seven relatives at an ornate family plot in San Juan.
Accepting for her husband of 28 years at the 1995 Emmy Awards, Merel Poloway Julia said, "I hope that you will always keep him in your heart as I will always keep him in my heart." In a 1995 entertainment column for the Web site Addicted to Noise, critic Michael Goodwin lamented Julia's passing, remarking that the actor was "one of the last great movie stars—as opposed to merely talented film actors like Tom Hanks. [May he] rest in peace."
While video has allowed for the survival of Julia's acting legacy, those who remember the actor's philanthropic work have worked to keep his humanitarian efforts alive. The youth leadership program Earth Train established a home base in the 1,200 acres of Puerto Rican rainforest known as the Raul Julia Mountain Rainforest. In June of 1996, a new elementary school in the Bronx, New York City, was christened the Raul Julia Micro Society Dual Language School; and in May of the same year, a wing of El Nuevo Theatro Puerto Rico was dedicated in Julia's name. In 1994, The Hunger Project established the Raul Julia Ending Hunger Fund, appointing Julia's widow as director in 1999, and presenting the annual Raul Julia Global Citizen Award to actor-humanitarians such as Susan Sarandon (1999), Jeff Bridges (2000), and Edward James Olmos (2001). In 1997, inspired by Julia's work, The Hunger Project expanded its operations into Latin America.
Cruz, Barbara C., Raul Julia: Actor and Humanitarian (Hispanic Biographies), Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Perez, Frank and Ann Weil, Raul Julia (Contemporary Hispanic Americans), Raintree/Steck-Vaughan, 1996.
Stefoff, Rebecca, Raul Julia (Hispanics of Achievement), Chelsea House, 1994.
Cigar Aficianado, Winter 1993/94.
Elle, November 1987, p. 142.
"Raul Julia Online," http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/4596.
"The Hunger Project—The Raul Julia Ending Hunger Fund," http://www.thp.org/rj.
Puerto Rico Herald, http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/vol4n06/ProfileJulia-en.shtml (February 11, 2000).