Latinos, much like Latinas, played an important part in the early history of film. Though Cantinflas is one of the most recognized names, there are certainly many other interesting stories. For example, the Latin Lover first became popular in the 1920s, with Ricardo Cortez exploiting the trend. It turned out that he was actually named Jacob Krantz, and he was not Latino. Not all men were cast in this type of role, and not all had the same path to the silver screen. Here are just 10 actors with Latino roots you need to know from early cinema:
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Anthony Quinn was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, as Antonio Rodolfo Oaxaca Quinn. He was first a contract player and portrayed villains for Paramount. But because he was not a United States citizen until 1947, he was able to move up to better roles while other actors fought in the war. He was still upset with the roles he got and didn’t renew his contract with Paramount. Instead, he turned to the theater for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which gave him more clout when he returned to Hollywood. In 1952, he became the first Mexican-American to win an Oscar for his role as Eufemio Zapata in Viva Zapata! He won another Oscar in 1956 for his role in Lust for Life in which he was only on screen for less than 24 minutes.
Notable Film: Zorba the Greek
Ramón Novarro was born in Mexico as Jose Ramón Gil Samaniego, and one of his early roles was as a villain in The Prisoner of Zenda. He then moved into starring roles playing American heroes in Scaramouche and The Arab, notes Turner Classic Movies. Following the death of Rudolph Valentino, he took the reigns as the “Latin Lover.” His popularity declined when he transitioned to “talkies,” (aka movies with sound) and by the end of the 1930s, he had difficulty finding work. He struggled with his homosexuality, which drew him to alcohol and made it hard for him to get his career back on track. By the 1960s, he was working in TV, but his life was cut short in 1968 when he was murdered.
Notable film: Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ
Carlos Gardel was born in France, but his mother moved to Argentina to avoid the humiliation she faced for having a child out of wedlock. Though Gardel is known for his music, he was also an actor. His first movie was in 1917, and his first talkie was in 1931’s Las Luces de Buenos Aires. He worked in the United States and France for Paramount. He has 22 acting credits, some of which allowed him to shine as a singer. He remains a popular figure in Latin America, especially in Argentina. An upcoming film directed by Armand Mastroianni will depict his life.
Notable film: Cuesta abajo
Puerto Rican José Ferrer was born in 1912. He first worked as a Broadway actor, and his first movie role was in 1948’s Joan of Arc, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Ferrer’s refined way of speaking brought him roles as academics and snobs. Ferrer is the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award for 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac. In Caine Mutiny, he proved that even in small doses, he could hold his own against Hollywood great Humphrey Bogart.
Notable film: Caine Mutiny
Born in Mexico, Jorge Negrete worked in a hospital before starting his singing career. He signed a contract with NBC Television for a program that featured Cuban and Mexican artists. In 1937, he was given the lead role in La madrina del diablo. He continued to make movies, and his brother even got him a contract with 20th Century Fox, where he would film Spanish movies for Hollywood. American actors were fearful of the project and stopped it from happening.
Notable film: El Peñón de las Ánimas
Gilbert Roland was born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in Mexico. He first wanted to become a bullfighter, but after moving to the United States, acting found him. He was picked out of the streets to become an extra. He worked alongside Clara Bow and Norma Talmadge in the silent era, and his voice found him a place in the talkie era. He worked in Spanish language versions of Hollywood films, and his prominence in roles decreased in the 1940s. But he continued to be a hit with critics.
Notable film: The Bad and the Beautiful
Antonio Aguilar was another popular actor-singer from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. He studied filmmaking in Hollywood before returning to Mexico to star in movies, according to the New York Times. He appeared in more than 100 films, and he portrayed plenty of historical figures, such as Emiliano Zapata.
Notable film: The Undefeated
Barry Norton was born in Argentina, and started working in Hollywood in the 1920s. He was in commercially successful films in the 1920s. In the following decade, he was still getting leading roles, but it was in Spanish-language versions of Hollywood movies, such as Dracula, which was created at the same time and on the same lot as the Hollywood version.
Notable film: Dracula
Oscarito was born Oscar Lorenzo Jacinto de la Imaculada Concepción Teresa Diaz in Spain, and he came from a family of circus comedians. His first movie was 1933’s Voz do Carnaval, and he became very popular in Brazilian comedies, which are known as chanchadas. He and Grande Otelo are considered one of the biggest comedy actors in Brazil. Oscarito appeared in drag and did other things that shook up the status quo in his movies.
Notable film: Aviso aos navegantes
El Inmortal Pedro Infante was born in 1917, and he went on to become one of Mexico’s biggest idols. He starred alongside María Félix in Tizoc, and he won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 7th Berlin International Film Festival. The movie went on to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1958. One of his better known characters is Pepe “El Toro”, a poor carpenter, which he portrayed in three movies. This helped him become as popular as Félix and Jorge Negrete. He died in 1957 when the plane he was piloting crashed.
Notable film: Tizoc