R.I.P. Gregory Sierra

I was a huge fan of Puerto Rican-American actor Gregory Sierra (b. 1937) whom we learned late last night passed away of cancer back on January 4.

The early to mid-70s were Sierra’s heyday, when he seemed to be everywhere. Funny, good-looking (even with thinning hair) and radiating smarts, he was a perfect guy to “represent” when the Latin-American community was just starting to break through to a more prominent slice of the show biz pie. A lot of the parts he was hired to play could easily have fallen into stereotype, but he resisted the impulse and always added shading and nuance and levels to his characters. The recurring part of Julio on Sanford and Son (1972-75) led to Sierra’s best known role, that of Chano in the first two seasons of Barney Miller (1975-76). I really missed him when he left the show; he was one of my favorite characters. He’d also had a recurring role on The Flying Nun (1969-70), which was set in Puerto Rico, and could be seen in hit movies like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Papillion (1973), and Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974 — he’s the bartender Carlos) and The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1983, this one not quite a hit). One of his most prestigious gigs from around this time didn’t see the light of day until a couple of years ago — he was in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind.

In 1978 Sierra was tried in his own starring sitcom A.E.S. Hudson Street, playing a doctor at a hospital in a poor neighborhood. A highwater mark from a certain standpoint (he starred), though the fact that the show only lasted five episodes did not give it an exalted place in the annals of television history. But he went on to recurring roles in the hit series’ Soap (1980-81), Hill Street Blues (1983), Miami Vice (1984), and Murder She Wrote (1993-95), and was a regular on two other short-lived series, Zorro and Son (1983) and Something is Out There (1988-89).

The ’90s were Sierra’s last full decade of work, appearing in such films as Deep Cover (1992), Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992), the Jim Abrahams comedies Hot Shots Part Deux (1993) and Mafia! (1998), Keenan Ivory Wayans A Low Down Dirty Shame (1994) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). These are just some of his over 100 screen credits. Prior to making it big on screens big and small, Sierra was a New York stage actor. He is missed.