Romero, Cesar: 1907-1994: Dancer, Actor

views updated

Cesar Romero: 1907-1994: Dancer, actor

Cesar Romero's career on stage, screen, and film spanned more than 60 years and included over 100 movies, as well as an array of stage and television appearances. Romero was well-known for his two-year stint in the 1960s as the sinister Joker on the television show Batman, but his heyday was as a studio actor for Twentieth Century-Fox during the 1930s and 1940s. Often acting the role of the playboy, the other man, and the "Latin lover," Romero seldom achieved the full status of a leading man. Nonetheless, his charm, debonair good looks, and suave style made him a favorite on screen as well as among his peers.

Danced His Way into Show Business

Cesar Romero was born on February 15, 1907, in New York City. His Italian-born father, Cesar Julio Romero, was an exporter of sugar and machinery, and his mother, Maria Mantilla, was a modestly successful singer and concert pianist. They had emigrated from Cuba to the United States, where Romero and his three siblings were raised. His maternal grandfather, the well-known Cuban patriot and writer José Martí y Perez, was one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution. Romero grew up in a privileged household until his father lost his fortune when the sugar market collapsed.

Romero was educated at the Riverdale Country School and the Collegiate School in New York City, where he had his first acting experience, playing four roles in the school production of The Merchant of Venice. A generally unmotivated student, he never graduated. Romero was the epitome of the tall, dark, and handsome Latin lover made popular by screen actor Rudolph Valentino, and he became a popular fixture on the debutante party circuit, where he associated with New York's elite. Following the demise of his father's business, Romero took a job with a Wall Street bank, but he had no interest in pursuing a career other than in show business.

In 1927 he was approached by wealthy heiress Elizabeth Higgins, who wanted to form a dance team, and the 20-year-old Romero began turning his suave good looks, innate charm, and love of dancing into a new career. "I was a helluva a good dancer, and I always was stagestruck, anyway," he told the Associated Press. "It was the only way I knew how to get into show business." Although he had no formal dance training, Romero became an accomplished ballroom dancer in the theaters and nightclubs of New York City.

At a Glance . . .

Born on February 15, 1907, in New York, NY; died on January 1, 1994, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Cesar Julio Romero and Maria Mantilla.

Career: Dancer, 1927-29; Actor on stage, film, and television, 1927-94.

Awards: Fifty Years in the Film Industry award, Hollywood International Celebrity Award Banquet, 1984; Nosotros Golden Eagle for Success as a Hispanic in Show Business, 1984; Imagen Hispanic Media Award for Life Achievement, 1991; Will Rogers Memorial Award, Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, 1992.

From Dinner Club to the Stage

Although Romero and Higgins never achieved true celebrity status for their dance routines, their performance merited billing at New York's finest dinner clubs, including Club Richman, the St. Regis Roof, the Ambassador Roof, and the Montmartre Café. As he did in his youth, Romero relied on his charming good looks and Latin-lover appeal to begin hob-nobbing with the theater elite. He was soon invited, along with Higgins, to join the cast of the Broadway revue Lady Do, which was about to open at Manhattan's Liberty Theater. In his first stage performance, Romero did the foxtrot, waltz, and tango for 56 shows beginning April 18, 1927.

Romero also continued as a dinner club dance partner with Higgins until 1929, but he sustained a painful injury lifting a new partner, Nita Vernille, onto his shoulders while performing the tango at the Club Montmartre, which effectively ended his dancing career. Instead, Romero turned to the theater full time. In September of 1929 he opened in The Street Singer, also starring Andrew Tombes, who would become Romero's longtime companion. During the show's 191 performances, Romero gained the attention of producer Brock Pemberton, who cast him as a replacement for the romantic lead role of Count Di Ruvo in Strictly Dishonorable.

During the summer of 1931, Romero played the part of Count Di Ruvo for a road company in Mount Vernon, New York, and then returned to Pemberton's production. After appearing in The Social Register during the first half of 1932, Romero took on the part of the chauffeur in the hit show Dinner at Eight, which ran for 232 performances in New York and became a successful road show.

Made Screen Debut

Romero made his screen debut in 1933 in an unnoticed, low-budget film, The Shadow Laughs. After an impressive screen test for MGM, the production company signed Romero to a bit part in the 1934 hit film, The Thin Man. During the early days of film, actors were hired by a production company and worked on movies solely under the studio's label. However, MGM loaned Romero to Universal Studios for his 1934 role in British Agent. Following the film's release, Universal signed him to a three-year deal. When author Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for his edgy comedy The Good Fairy, Romero was assigned the role of a sexy gigolo. From early in his career, Romero was singled out for parts that emphasized his image as the ultimate Latin lover. This characterization provided film opportunities for Romero, but the typecasting also limited the scope of his career.

Romero's association with Universal in the 1930s also included roles in Hold 'em Yale and Diamond Jim. He was also loaned out to newly formed Twentieth Century for numerous films, including Clive of India and Cardinal Richelieu. Romero won the lead role in The Devil is a Woman after the picture's first choice abandoned the project. According to James R. Parish and William T. Leonard's Hollywood Players: The Thirties, Romero was thrilled by the chance to play a true leading man role in a major film. "I wanted the role terribly because I knew how much it could do for me. But I don't think I had a dog's chance of getting it," Romero said. In fact, Romero was awarded the lead role, but the film was a commercial and critical failurethe Spanish government complained that it presented an insulting image of the Spanish military, and insisted it be withdrawn from theaters. After seven months the film was pulled from theaters, and Romero's chance to claim a spot as a full-fledged leading man had passed.

Nicknamed the "Latin From Manhattan"

Romero and Universal disagreed over Romero's desire for a raise, and in 1937 Romero left the studio to join Twentieth Century, which was in the process of merging with Fox. He stayed with Twentieth Century-Fox for 15 years, making close to five movies a year. Romero later remembered his days as a studio actor with fondness. "It used to be one big family, this industry," he told the Toronto Star. "You knew everybody at all the studios and you saw them often. Every Sunday night you'd be at the Trocadero for the show and you'd know everybody." Romero was known as "Butch" to his close friends, a nickname bestowed on him as a comic antithesis to his demeanor. For his part, Romero, now living in Hollywood, often referred to himself tongue-in-cheek as the "Latin from Manhattan."

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Romero played alongside Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie and in The Little Princess, in which he starred as Ram Dass. He worked with Sonja Henie in Happy Landing. After playing a henchman in Return of the Cisco Kid in 1939, Romero later became the first Latin actor to portray the Cisco Kid, a role previously played by Anglo actors. In one of the favorite roles of his career, Romero played the light-hearted role in several installments of the movie series, including Cisco Kid and the Lady, Lucky Cisco Kid, Viva Cisco Kid, and The Gay Caballero.

Romero also appeared in supporting roles in a number of musicals, including the 1941 films Tall, Dark and Handsome, The Great American Broadcast, Dance Hall, and Week-End in Havana. He joined Betty Grable in Springtime in the Rockies and Coney Island, and reunited with Henie in Wintertime in 1943. In 1942 Romero enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. Romero had already served as a lieutenant in the California State Guards, as a member of the Evacuation Corps, and as an air warden. During his three-year stint with the Coast Guard, Romero rose to the highest of noncommissioned ranks, chief boat-swain's mate.

After World War II, Twentieth Century-Fox sent Romero and Tyrone Power on a promotional tour of South America. After returning, Romero took on one of the few starring roles of his long career as the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez in the 1947 film Captain from Castile. In all, Romero made seven films between 1947 and 1949. In 1950 he ended his long relationship with Twentieth Century-Fox to become a freelance actor.

Romero remained busy, making an average of two movies a year for the next three decades. He appeared with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the original Ocean's Eleven, and with John Wayne in Donovan's Reef. He also had a role in the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days in 1956. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Romero slowed his prolific movie schedule, and his last film appearance was in 1991, in the black comedy Mortuary Academy.

With the advent of television, Romero found a new forum in which to display his multiple talents. From the 1950s, he appeared regularly in a wide range of guest roles including variety shows, westerns, comedy, and drama. He was a frequent guest on Zorro, Bonanza, Wagon Train, and The Love Boat. He starred as a mysterious foreign courier in a short-lived television series Passport to Danger, which aired from 1954-55. During the 1980s, at the age of 78, he spent two years playing Jane Wyman's love interest on the popular dramatic series Falcon Crest.

Portrayed "The Joker"

Of his hundreds of appearances on stage, screen, and film, Romero is most recognized among Baby Boomers for his two-year stint in 1966-67 as Batman's maniacal archenemy, the Joker, on the popular Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. He also played the part of Joker in the 1966 feature film Batman. Given the whole of Romero's career, during which he most often filled the role of the Latin lover with a self-mocking smile, it is interesting that he gained widespread fame with his handsome face covered in greasepaint and his debonair smile turned up into a wicked, devious grin.

Despite his willingness to take on the part, Romero hesitated when the studio asked him to shave off his trademark mustache. "It was as if he'd be losing all those wonderful movies he made when he was the dashing Latin Romero," West told People Weekly. "So the producers said, 'Okay, just dab some white makeup over it.' But if you look closely, you can see the mustache through the greasepaint." When the role of the Joker was revived by Jack Nicholson in 1989 in a film remake of Batman, Romero was critical. "It just hit me the wrong way," Romero said, according to the Associated Press. "It's not the Batman concept at all. What we did was fun."

Romero, who struggled against the stereotype of the "Latin lover" that afflicted many Latino actors at the time, played the same part in his own personal life. Romero, who never married and who lived most of his life with members of his extended family under the same roof, kept many of the famous and near-famous women of Hollywood on his arm, including Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Ann Sheridan. His gracious, unpretentious personality, combined with his impeccable manners and dress, made him a favorite escort. Active on the social scene until his death, Romero died on January 1, 1994, at St. John's Hospital in Los Angeles, from a blood clot caused by complications from severe pneumonia and bronchitis.

Selected filmography


The Shadow Laughs, 1933.

Romance of the Rio Grande, 1929.

The Devil is a Woman, 1933.

British Agent, 1934.

The Thin Man, 1934.

Cardinal Richelieu, 1935.

Clive of India, 1935.

The Good Fairy, 1935.

Hold 'Em Yale, 1935.

Dangerously Yours, 1937.

Wee Willie Winkie, 1937.

Happy Landing, 1938.

The Return of the Cisco Kid, 1939.

The Little Princess, 1939.

Lucky Cisco Kid, 1940.

The Gay Caballero, 1940.

Viva Cisco Kid, 1940.

The Great American Broadcast, 1941.

Tall, Dark and Handsome, 1941.

Week-End in Havana, 1941.

Springtime in the Rockies, 1942.

Wintertime, 1943.

Coney Island, 1943.

Vera Cruz, 1954.

Around the World in 80 Days, 1956.

Ocean's Eleven, 1960.

Donovan's Reef, 1963.

Batman, 1966.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, 1969.

Mortuary Academy, 1991.


Passport to Danger, 1954-55.

Wagon Train, 1957.

Zorro, 1957.

Bonanza, 1959.

Batman, 1966-67.

The Love Boat, 1977.

Falcon Crest, 1988-87.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Maltin, Leonard, ed., Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, 1994.

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties, Arlington House Publishers, 1976.

The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 5 vols., St. James Press, 2000.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Morrow and Co., 1981.

Variety Obituaries, Vol. 15, 1993-1994, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.


Associated Press, June 23, 1989; January 2, 1994.

Independent (London, England), January 4, 1994, p. 12.

People Weekly, January 17, 1994.

Toronto Star, August 18, 1991, January 3, 1994.

Kari Bethel

About this article

Romero, Cesar: 1907-1994: Dancer, Actor

Updated About content Print Article