Throughout his career, José Ferrer maximized every bit of his talent.

The protean Puerto Rican performer dared to take on extremely challenging parts that would stretch him as an actor and tax his ability, which is how he ended up on Broadway, winning a Tony in 1947 for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac. Then, in 1950, he took a crack at the first movie adaptation of Edmond Rostand's classic love story. Starring as the eponymous philosopher, a long-nosed unabashed romantic who woos his adored Roxane for another fellow, Ferrer had to evoke a full spectrum of emotions — from heartbreak to humor, anger, agony, generosity, pity and joy — all while displaying the sort of swaggering swordsmanship that could win over a wide audience. (He spent three months training with fencing master Giorgio Santelli for a fight with a "hundred men," a scene that is only talked about onstage.) Notably, Cyrano de Bergerac was only Ferrer’s second screen performance.

And Ferrer pulled off the role with such aplomb that he gained overnight stardom. So, it was no surprise when he won Best Actor in a Leading Role at the 23rd Oscars, becoming the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar. Not only that, the win also made Ferrer the first person ever to earn an Oscar and a Tony for playing the same character; only 10 performers have done so since. 

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy who voted for me, you must know that this means more to me than just the honor accorded to an actor. And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for what I consider a vote of confidence and an act of faith," Ferrer said in his acceptance speech. "And believe me, I will not let you down."

Today, Ferrer is remembered as a graceful and magnetic actor loved by critics and audiences. His name on the marquee was an assurance of quality, and, just as his most remarkable peers, Ferrer had tremendous range. He also possessed an unforgettable voice; powerful and hypnotic, it could express the most subtle of emotions. His performance as a smooth villain in Otto Preminger's 1950 film noir, Whirlpool, is an exquisite example of Ferrer employing his voice to great effect. His character casts an evil spell on Gene Tierney's character by mouthing "silken phrases with acid savor," as one critic put it.

"What an instrument," actor John Leguizamo tells A.frame, who called Ferrer a major influence on his career. "His voice boomed and bellowed in a way that made one jealous of his prodigious gifts. You had to take notice of this man and his God-given talents. He could not be ignored." 

"That voice! It was so low yet full, robust yet tender. He was brilliant with rhythm and word play," actor Robin de Jesús tells A.frame, winner of the 2010 Jose Ferrer Tespis Award from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. "He knew how to use his specific sound to be effective and inviting. I think it’s what allowed him such range. He knew his instrument so well. I love listening to him speak because his sound had such a swag to it. He lovingly demanded the audience listen to him."


Ferrer remained one of Hollywood's most respected actors until his death in 1992 at the age of 80. His film credits include major roles in the political thriller Crisis, in which he starred alongside Cary Grant, the comedy-drama Anything Can Happen, the musical Miss Sadie Thompson, and Ship of Fools, a period drama set on an ocean liner that features an all-star cast that includes Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, and Simone Signoret. In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Ferrer nearly steals the movie as a stodgy intellectual elitist spouting conceptual pragmatism who's also a singer of Schubert lieder; his role was a spirited parody of Ferrer's public image as a man of culture.

There was also his small but significant role in Lawrence of Arabia, appearing as Turkish Bey. For only five minutes of screen time, David Lean reportedly paid Ferrer $25,000 — more than the combined salaries of Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif. Nobody who has seen Lawrence of Arabia can forget the chilling scene in which Ferrer's Turkish Bey captures Lawrence in the enemy-held city of Derra, where he is tortured. Afterwards, Lawrence is seized with bloodlust. O’Toole once likened filming that scene with Ferrer to a master class in acting. "If I was to be judged by any one film performance," Ferrer later said, "it would be my five minutes in Lawrence."  

Even in a supporting role like the one in his film debut, in 1948's Joan of Arc, where director Victor Fleming cast him as the weak-willed, childlike Dauphin opposite Ingrid Bergman, Ferrer seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. In the scene that takes place in the Dauphin's court, when he is inspired by Joan's faith and orders that an army be assembled with the Maid of Orleans as its spiritual leader, Ferrer's posture alone lets the audience know what his character is thinking and feeling. The performance led to his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

After winning his Oscar in 1951 for Cyrano de Bergerac, Ferrer received another Oscar nomination in 1953 for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in Moulin Rouge. A impressionistic biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ferrer stars as the disabled French painter whose sardonic posters captured the seamy nightlife of Belle Epoque Paris. Due to Lautrec's congenital bone disease, Lautrec did not grow after age 13, so Ferrer performed the role with padded boots on his knees and had his legs strapped up by a harness that was attached to his shoulders and waist. It was a physically demanding part that he prepared for by practicing yoga.   

"In this picture, he's perfect," said John Huston, who directed the film. "One thing you’ll notice is that in playing this dwarf, this grotesque, he never for one minute gives the character any self-pity. It's a proud and whole character, which is what Lautrec should be."

During the 23rd Oscars, José Ferrer accepted his Oscar via open audio circuit from New York City.

By that time, Ferrer was being called the "top triple-threat man in town." He signed an all-embracing contract with Twentieth Century-Fox that gave him the authority to work in movies, television and theater. In addition to acting, Ferrer also worked as a director in all three mediums. In 1955, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Joseph Kramm's gripping drama The Shrike, in which Ferrer portrayed a promising young stage director who ends up in the psychiatric ward of a city hospital after being driven mad by his estranged wife (June Allyson). Critics praised the film — The New York Times review said Ferrer "proves that he is as expert behind the camera as he is" in front of it. He would go on to direct six more films, including the drama The Great Man, which he co-wrote with Al Morgan, and I Accuse!, in which he also starred, playing a Jewish captain in the French Army charged with treason. 

"In Ferrer's prime, I would compare him to Noël Coward, in that they both had enormous amounts of energy and could literally do it all," Mike Peros tells A.frame, whose biography, Jose Ferrer: Success and Survival, was published in 2020. "Both were accomplished musicians who juggled movies, Broadway, and television with equal facility; both were instrumental in the writing of their productions. And their performances didn't suffer by their being so extended. Indeed, it seemed one element informed and improved the other." 

Ferrer was known to have an unceasing work ethic. Friends and observers said he was never intimidated by the thought that there was something that he couldn't do. He was educated at Princeton, where he formed a jazz band that included as a member none other than Oscar winner Jimmy Stewart, and was moved to become an actor after joining the school's Triangle Club, a training ground for theater people. Ferrer spoke five languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German – mastered the piano, was an excellent chef, appeared on radio programs, performed in a ballet, and sang at the Beverly Hills Opera.

At one point in the early 1950s, Ferrer was negotiating a movie contract with R.K.O. and performing eight shows a week on Broadway, while also taking singing, tap and primitive dance lessons. "I keep feeling I’m driving myself toward the maximum possible dramatic expression, which is why I study singing and dancing," Ferrer said in an interview. "I feel an actor should be able to move across a stage not only in the way he knows how, but that he should be free to choose the most appropriate way for the part he is playing out of possibly a hundred ways."   

More than just a multihyphenate, Ferrer was a folk hero in Puerto Rico, where he was born and kept a residence, and even donated his Oscar to the University of Puerto Rico. Much like Lin-Manuel Miranda has today, Ferrer inspired a new generation of Hispanic talent which had often been relegated to minor roles as servants or thugs, and every so often as "the passionate Latin lover," if represented on-screen at all. Ferrer was classically trained and took work at every opportunity, learning by doing a variety of characters while paving the way for future Hispanic stars. 

"He showed the world that Latin actors can play any role and that we can handle complex parts and language," Leguizamo says, who stepped into the role of Lautrec in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001). "He showed what Latin excellence is all about. I think he was important for us Latinx actors so we could see the possibility of attaining better roles and attention."

José Ferrer in 1953, posing with daughter Letty and his then-wife, Rosemary Clooney.

Several of Ferrer's children also followed him into the acting world: his daughter Letty teaches acting in New York at the HB Studio where she is the Hagen Legacy Chair, named for her mother, Ferrer's first wife, the German actress Uta Hagen, with whom he starred in Paul Robeson's Othello on Broadway; his son Miguel, whose mother was singer Rosemary Clooney (she and Ferrer were married twice), often played a tough guy or a lawman in films and TV series. He had notable roles in Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987), Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), and Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. He died in 2017 at the age of 61.

According to Rosie Perez, one of Ferrer's greatest contributions was that he never changed his name to something mainstream or less ethnic sounding. "I first saw José Ferrer in The Caine Mutiny," Perez tells A.frame, who serves as co-chair with Ivette Rodriguez of the Academy's Latino Affinity Group, La Agenda. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart and Fred MacMurray, was a smashing success, and received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. In it, Ferrer portrays a shrewd World War II naval defense lawyer who, following a court-martial proceeding, teaches the officers about honor.

"I was watching it with my aunt and remember her saying with great pride that he was Puerto Rican and that he also won an Oscar for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac. This was before VHS tapes and I couldn't wait to see that on television. When it finally came on, I was blown away," Perez says. "I felt the same sense of pride as my aunt did. After that, I was on a mad hunt to see everything this amazingly talented man was in." 

Perez recently saw Ferrer in 1958's The High Cost of Loving, a marital satire that he also directed that introduced Gena Rowlands to audiences, as part of a TCM tribute to Ferrer that aired during Hispanic Heritage Month. "Ferrer proved, early on, to the non-ethnic world of Hollywood, that we can transcend not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well," she said. "It's absurd and embarrassing that there are still those who need this type of convincing. But, unfortunately, after so much time, it seems so."

Even though he struggled financially for much of his career, Ferrer remained generous with his time and talents, taking on risky productions with socially conscious themes, as well as civic projects he believed in. He supported up-and-coming Hispanic artists like Pedro Pietri, who was a part of the Nuyorican movement of the 1960s, and portrayed a stern bishop in the 1979 independent film A Life of Sin, written by Emilio Díaz Valcárcel and directed by Efraín López Neris. He also narrated Roberto Clemente: A Touch of Royalty, a moving documentary of the Puerto Rican baseball star and humanitarian.  

"Ferrer understood that his work came with a platform and he made sure that platform was put to good use," de Jesús explains. "Often times sacrificing his personal needs in exchange. His financial struggles are more telling of Hollywood than they are of him. His experience only affirms the importance of us honoring our ancestors."

"What I love most about his performances, especially in Cyrano de Bergerac, is his joy," de Jesús adds. "You feel such a sense of play. I think that's why he's so easy to watch and why we, the audience, want to go on a journey with him." 

By Craigh Barboza


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