(b. 15 February 1907 in New York City; d. 1 January 1994 in Santa Monica, California), Cuban-American actor who appeared in more than 100 films and television shows from the 1930s to the 1990s, projecting the role of a tall, urbane, and handsome Latin lover. In the 1960s he was best known for his portrayal of the Joker in the Batman television series.
Romero was the son of an Italian-born sugar and machinery exporter, Cesar Julio Romero, and Maria Mantilla, a singer and concert pianist. On his maternal side, Romero’s grandfather was José Martí y Perez (1853–1895), the Cuban patriot and writer. One of four children, Romero lived through difficult economic times when his father’s exporting business floundered, yet his good looks and grooming made him popular at debutante parties. He was an indifferent student and did not graduate from high school.
In 1927, using the charm that made him popular on the party circuit, Romero began his career in show business as a ballroom dancer in New York City theaters and nightclubs. Generating attention with his fancy footwork, Romero soon appeared in Broadway productions. He was starring in the 1932 play Dinner at Eight when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed him to a film contract and cast him as a gigolo in The Thin Man (1934). His first featured role was in British Agent (1934). After MGM canceled his contract, Romero was signed by Universal (1934–1936) and cast in such films as Diamond Jim (1935), The Good Fairy (1935), and 15 Maiden Lane (1936). In 1937 he was signed by Darryl F. Zanuck, who had formed Twentieth Century—Fox. There the “Latin from Manhattan,” as Romero often described himself, served as a contract player for fifteen years.
In the late 1930s Romero appeared with the child star Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and The Little Princess (1939). In addition, he became the first Latin actor to play the Cisco Kid—earlier Ciscos were portrayed by Anglos such as Warner Baxter—in films such as The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939) and Viva Cisco Kid (1940). The early 1940s found Romero cast as a supporting character in musical romances such as Weekend in Havana (1941); Tall, Dark, and Handsome (1941); and Springtime in the Rockies (1942).
Romero’s film career was interrupted in the mid-1940s, when the actor enlisted for a three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. He rose to the rank of chief boatswain’s mate, the highest noncommissioned rank in the service, and was frequently used as a public spokesman urging American workers to increase production and support for the armed forces during World War II.
Following his military service, Twentieth Century—Fox sent Romero and Tyrone Power on a goodwill tour of South America, where the Latin actor was well received. Appearing opposite such actresses as Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable, Romero resumed his career in romantic musicals with Carnival in Costa Rica (1947) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). Romero’s favorite role was in Captain from Castile (1947), in which he was cast as the conquistador Hernán Cortés.
In 1950 the actor’s contract with Fox expired, but as a freelance performer Romero continued to appear in feature films throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. While many of these films were less than memorable, among Romero’s credits are Vera Cruz (1954), with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster; the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956); Ocean’s Eleven (1960), with Frank Sinatra and the rest of Hollywood’s “Rat Pack”; Donovan’s Reef, with John Wayne (directed by John Ford, 1963); and Disney’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970). His final feature film was Mortuary Academy (1991).
While Hollywood struggled in adapting to the challenge of television, Romero made a smooth transition to the new medium, appearing in a variety of roles for comic, dramatic, and Western shows from the 1950s through the 1980s. In addition to a featured role as the urbane, mysterious foreign courier in the syndicated series Passport to Danger (1954–1956), Romero was a frequent guest star on such popular television fare as Zorro, Bonanza, Playhouse 90, Wagon Train, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, and the variety shows of Milton Berle, Dinah Shore, and Red Skelton. But Romero is probably best known for his characterization of the comic villain the Joker in the campy mid-1960s show Batman. Jack Nicholson borrowed from Romero in reprising the character for director Tim Burton’s motion picture Batman (1989). Romero was also cast in a recurring role as the Greek shipping magnate Nick Stavros, opposite Jane Wyman, in the popular 1980s series Falcon Crest.
As his film career wound down in the 1970s and 1980s, Romero became a popular actor and dancer on the dinner theater circuit, in addition to maintaining an active presence in Hollywood social circles. Although he never married, Romero in his later years continued to cultivate his image as a romantic figure, commenting at age eighty-six, “I can’t date women my own age any more—I hate going to cemeteries. So I look for the younger breed. I take them dining and dancing and by the end of an evening they’re bushwhacked, whereas I still want to go on to the next nightclub.”
In the 1980s and 1990s Romero received numerous lifetime achievement awards for his work and his contributions to the Latin community. In 1984 he was recognized with a career achievement prize at the Hollywood International Celebrity Awards Banquet and a Nosotros Golden Eagle Award for work as a Latin American in the entertainment industry. In 1991 he received the Imagen Hispanic Media Prize, and in 1992 he accepted the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce Will Rogers Memorial Award. Remaining active well into his eighties, Romero was hospitalized in late 1993 for severe bronchitis and pneumonia and died at age eighty-six due to complications from a blood clot. He is buried in Santa Monica.
Romero’s film and television performances spanned more than sixty years, with more than 100 film roles and numerous television appearances to his credit. While many of his films cast Romero in the stereotypical role of a romantic Latin lover, his work in Captain from Castile and the Batman television series demonstrated the range of an actor who was capable of strong dramatic and comic performances. In an industry where Anglo actors were often assigned Latin roles, Romero’s real Latin presence served as an important corrective.
Romero’s life and career are chronicled in Gary D. Keller, A Biographical Handbook of Hispanics and United States Film (1997), and Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie, Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television (1994). Romero’s work as the Joker in the Batman series is featured in Joel Eisner, The Official Batman Batbook (1986). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 3 Jan. 1994).