Today is the birthday of the distinguished actor and director José Ferrer (José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón, 1912-1992). Ferrer possessed a natural dignity, intelligence and command that made him ideally suited for playing stuffy, overbearing and pompous pedants, doctors, lawyers, and professors and such, as he often did in his later years. But it was always rewarding when he went outside that box. His signature role for example was the title character in Cyrano de Bergerac, which Ferrer played twice on Broadway, and in two different movies. The part is humorous, vulnerable and macho all at the same time. Only the very greatest actors can play it, and (so far) Ferrer has come to own it for all time.
The son of a San Juan lawyer, Ferrer graduated Princeton in 1938, the same year he married actress (and later acting teacher) Uta Hagen (the first of his four wives. He would later be married to singer Rosemary Clooney). He was a constant fixture on Broadway throughout the 1940s and 50s in plays like Cyrano, Charley’s Aunt, Othello (he played Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello in Broadway’s longest ever running Shakespeare production), The Shrike (which he also directed) and many others.
Ferrer started out strong in films in the the 50s, winning the best actor Oscar for Cyrano in 1950 and playing prestige parts in movies like John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge (his portral of Toulouse-Lautrec is so great it threatens to swallow up Cyrano), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). He is screamingly hilarious as a drunken ham actor in Carl Reiner’s 1967 Enter Laughing. Ferrer’s niche was to be a character actor however, and while he did sometimes enjoy the occasional lead in such stuff as The Return of Captain Nemo (1978), he was more often to be seen as parts of ensembles in schlock such as Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, released that same year. Still, great stuff continued to come along and we much relished his turns in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be (1983) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984). Some of his last work was on the soap opera Another World!
To learn more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc