Like something from out of one of his films, Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso (1905-1994) was the son and grandson of bullfighters who was forced to flee an invasion of his native Chihuahua, Mexico by Pancho Villa’s band and moved to Texas. As a teenager, the young man went to Hollywood and began getting extra work using a screen name devised by mashing up those of John Gilbert and Ruth Roland.
While Gilbert Roland was a pretty Anglo sounding handle, it fooled nobody, and the curly-haired, mustachioed and virile young man rapidly became a star in the Latin Lover vein. His pictures of the silent era included The Plastic Age (1925) with Clara Bow, and Camille (1926) with Norma Talmadge; he is said to have been romantically involved with both of those leading ladies, and he went on to co-star with Talmadge in several additional films. He was also in The Campus Flirt (1926) with Bebe Daniels, Rose of the Golden West (1927) with Mary Astor, and New York Nights (1929) with Talmadge, his first talkie.
In the early pre-code era, Roland was largely relegated to acting in the Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films for a couple of years, although you could see him in supporting roles in things like The Passionate Plumber (1932) with Buster Keaton, She Done Him Wrong (1933) with Mae West, and later some action/historical classics like Juarez (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940) and Captain Kidd (1945). From 1941 through 1946, Roland was married to Constance Bennett, with whom he had appeared in two forgotten pictures in 1933, Our Betters and After Tonight. In 1946 and 1947 Roland stepped into the title role earlier played by Warner Baxter, Cesar Romero, and Duncan Renaldo in several Cisco Kid films, B movies, but one of his best remembered credits. Then came the comedy western The Dude Goes West (1948) with Eddie Albert.
The mature Gilbert Roland was just as appealing as the original package and he continued to be cast in major films, although in smaller roles, in things like Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950, Walter Huston’s last film), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Irwin Allen’s The Big Circus (1959), John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Incident on a Dark Street (1973, TV movie), and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (1977) with George C. Scott. In later years, more of his work was on TV shows like Wagon Train, The Magical World of Disney, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The F.B.I., The High Chaparral, Night Gallery, McCloud, Kung Fu, and The Sacketts. His last film was Barbarosa (1982) with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey. There were also a couple of late projects Roland pitched but didn’t come to fruition. One was a cop show where he would been the sheriff of a town full of surfers, and one was a bio-pic of Salvador Dali! Man, that would have been great! His last dozen years were spent in retirement.
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