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Only As Good As The Memories

Raul Julia has charted an unconventional path through film and stage.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

His eyes close, his chin lifts and his head tilts back ever so slightly as a grin slowly raises the corners of his mouth. "A cigar is as good as memories that you have when you smoked it," says Raul Julia, his melodious actor's baritone drawing out each word. Eyes still closed, he runs his hands across his slicked-back, black hair, then raises them deliberately, palms open and pointed toward the ceiling, as if in supplication, as he recalls one of the those special moments: "Whenever I smoke a Punch double corona now, I remember sitting in a hammock in Boy Scout camp, after a full day of participating with my son in the camp, taking an hour break, smoking the double corona and looking up at the trees and the sky. It's not just the actual taste, it's what's behind it in your mind." His eyes--the feeling, the emotion, the smile, always come from Julia's eyes--slowly open, and he smiles broadly. A happy man.

These are heady days for Julia. After a 25-year career of critically acclaimed roles on Broadway and in major films, the 49-year-old actor has tapped into Hollywood's big bucks and its star-making machine with The Addams Family, a re-creation of the 1960s television series. The movie stunned the film industry in 1991 with $100 million in box-office receipts in the United States. The sequel, Addams Family Values, is due out this November, and no one is expecting any less, least of all Julia.

"I don't mind a megahit," says Julia of the original Addams Family movie, "I'm grateful that it was, but nobody knew that it was going to be such a huge success." There is a quick litany of reasons why he decided to take the part of the patriarch in the first place, each explanation an attempt to undo an impression that he'd made the decision for money, not love. It was a comedy. There was the chance to work with Angelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd--"a brilliant actress" and a "brilliant actor." And his character, Gomez, gave him the opportunity to be "as theatrical as I want to be ... he sings, he dances, he sword fights. I've always wanted to do those swashbuckling things. It's one of the reasons I became an actor, to do those things, and I get to do them as Gomez."

The film's basic premise--a dark comedy about the zany Addams Family--attracted Julia to the script. "It is very unusual. It's a very well-delineated character by Charles Addams, a very sophisticated idea about these people who enjoy the gore and the darkness and the dark side of life. They love being depressed. They enjoy everything that regular people hate."

The "dark side" description of the film is just countercultural enough to fit comfortably within Julia's roster of other film and stage credits that run the gamut from The Eyes of Laura Mars and Presumed Innocent to Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Man of La Mancha. Although he's not ready to pigeonhole himself as a strong-minded iconoclast, throughout his career he has made more decisions from the heart than his pocketbook.

"Oh yeah, if I had made those decisions, I might have had a lot of money today. But I don't know if my career would be where it is. There's a lot of stuff just out there for exploitation, especially now with the video market. People will rent anything, I mean, 'Virgin Island Massacre,' 'Starving Sandwich Island,'" he says with a laugh. "Of course, I don't wait for the perfect script, but that comes along once in awhile, and you get a jewel like Kiss of the Spider Woman or The Penitent, or even Presumed Innocent."

Julia left his native Puerto Rico in the mid-1960s and came to New York with the single-minded purpose of becoming a professional actor. It wasn't a starry-eyed teenage quest or some last-minute happenstance created by being discovered by a director in a laundromat. From his first year in grade school, Julia knew he wasn't going to study law or medicine in the tradition of his upper-middle class family. "Instead of acting in court, I decided to act onstage," says Julia. But there was already some expression of independence in Julia's family. His father, who became an engineer, pursued a business idea--pizza--that he thought of while studying in the United States. He introduced the fast food to the Caribbean island and ran a restaurant called the Chicken Inn. And no one discouraged Julia's affinity for acting.

"I remember I was like five or six years old; I played the devil. That was my first role," he says, a sly grin breaking out this time. "I came onstage and I sort of like let go and started having a fit. You know, 'ooohhh' and rolling all over the stage. My parents thought, 'Oh, my God, what's wrong with him? He's possessed or something.' All of a sudden, I stood up and started saying my lines. From then on, that was it. I knew there was something special about the theater for me ... something beyond the regular reality, something that I could get into and transcend and become something other than myself."

Although his father was disappointed that Julia wouldn't be staying in Puerto Rico to take over the business, both his parents backed his move to New York. "They actually supported me economically for a year. But then I made the mistake of telling them, 'I don't need you anymore.' I was making $500 a week playing in Bye-Bye Birdie at the Dallas state fair and I'm saying to myself, 'I'm set.' Boy was I sorry." His father took him seriously, and that was the end of the money. But it also was the end of the work for a time. Back in New York, Julia borrowed from his roommate when he was broke. "Sometimes we used to eat once a day ... chicken backs. You could buy four chicken backs for a quarter." But he never resorted to the usual starving actor's pursuit of waiting tables. Instead, he taught Spanish, sold magazine subscriptions and even took a course to sell pens for a major department store. Finally his persistence paid off.

The Cuban Thing brought the young Julia to the Broadway stage in 1968. The first of his four Tony nominations resulted from his portrayal of Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1972. His three other Tony nominations were in 1975 for Where's Charley?, for his role in impresario Joseph Papp's production of Three Penny Opera in 1976 and Nine, a 1982 Broadway production. His many stage credits also include Mack the Knife, Dracula, Betrayal, Design for Living and Arms and the Man. In addition, he took the stage in more than a dozen productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, through which the actor forged a close bond with Papp.

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