Whether you grew up a child of the 90s obsessed with The Addams Family and thrilled to finally have an excuse to dress up a bit Goth for Halloween, or you’re more a fan of theater and 1980s productions of Shakespeare In The Park, you probably know and love iconic Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá. Which says a lot about who this incredible talent and cultural phenomenon was — he was not a singularly gifted artist or a Latino actor destined for one type of role; he was a multi-faceted master of the arts and a gift to us all. And beginning on September 13th, you can witness, appreciate and celebrate Juliá as the Latino gift that keeps on giving thanks to THIRTEEN’s American Masters and Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES, which joined forces to present a new PBS documentary Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage.
It’s hard to believe this is the first documentary on the pioneering Latino talent, which premiers 25 years after his untimely death in 1994, and several decades after he left his undeniable mark on the entertainment and cultural world. And while we’d argue this feature is long overdue, it’s also worth the wait. Leave it to some of Hollywood’s greatest Latino actors, musicians and celebrities to tell the story of a massively talented man who possessed a unique musicality and an ability to command a stage in ways that few actors have been able to do. In this documentary, which premiered at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival this summer, famous faces such as Rita Moreno, John Leguizamo, Andy Garcia and Benicia del Toro talk about what Juliá brought to the small screen and the stage, as well as what he brought to the Latino community by being so proudly Puerto Rican and so driven to entertain and empower.
The documentary is equal parts enlightening and engaging. Thanks to a valuable collection of rare stage and film footage, you get to see Juliá in some of his most iconic roles, as well as some lesser-known gigs. Whether you are watching him for the first time, or reliving some of your favorite movies, comedic roles, songs or theatrical performances, it’s hard not to be impressed and enthralled by what you see. The man was charismatic to say the least. And you just might learn something new about this icon as well. Turns out he wasn’t just Gomez Adams, though most younger fans may know him best as the Adams’ family patriarch. He began as a stage actor in Puerto Rico, and he was also a talented musician. His career in America began in the 1960s on Broadway, though he initially struggled to be cast in any roles, possibly due to his accent or the fact that people seriously underestimated Latino actors at that time. When he was finally offered roles, he dazzled as both an actor and a singer on the New York City stage. His musical talent was so great that director Barry Sonnenfeld decided that The Addams Family needed to have a musical number where Juliá could show off his talents. We all have him to thank for the epic “Mamushka” scene that is arguably the most entertaining and memorable of the movie.
It’s hard to forget Raúl Juliá’s extremely recognizable accent once you’ve heard it, and it’s not just because it was thick and present in almost every role he portrayed. It’s because his accent was unapologetically Puerto Rican, just as he was proudly Latino and unafraid to let his personality, his heritage, his culture and yes, his accent, permeate everything that he touched. Even Shakespeare.
Traditionally Shakespearean performances are accompanied by a British accent. Sure, Baz Luhrmann changed that up a bit in his 1996 film adaptation of Romeo + Juliet (shout out to Leonardo DiCaprio for making our teenage hearts swoon and for making us actually want to quote Shakespeare on repeat). But more often than not Shakespeare doesn’t really make you think of a Puerto Rican accent. And yet Juliá made it work, and brought his own culture and personality to a role that made him famous when he starred opposite the also iconic Meryl Streep in Shakespeare In The Park’s Taming Of The Shrew in 1981. As if we needed more proof that Juliá was a force to be reckoned with, if anyone could hold their own opposite Meryl, you know they’re the real deal.
It should come as no surprise that this documentary is a perfect blend of education, inspiration and good old-fashioned entertainment. Directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Ben DeJesus — who also directed PBS’s John Leguizamo’s Road To Broadway and who was nominated for a Tony award for Best Play for John Leguizamo’s Latin History For Morons — this documentary is a revealing look at the life and work of a Puerto Rican superstar who earned global recognition, fame and success while breaking down many boundaries along the way.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, DeJesus talks about the many ways that Latinos were typecast, especially decades ago when Juliá was first seeking roles on stage and in Hollywood, and still today. When asked if typecasting and racism fueled Juliá performances, he agrees that “it gave him an inner passion to overcome whatever resistance or preconceived notions people have of what a Latino actor can do. To go in and have this accent and still be able to master Shakespeare in a way very few people had, it’s a testament to his passion, his drive and his talent,” he explained.
While the documentary is dedicated to showcasing the work and talent of Raúl Juliá through footage and interviews with friends, family members, colleagues, fans and even Juliá himself (through archived footage), it is careful not to only focus on his famous roles but also on his contributions off stage and off screen. We learn about his efforts to fight social injustices, to pave the way for other Latino actors, and to end world hunger.
The documentary does more than just recap his lifetime and his career for posterity sake; it brings his legacy to life for a new generation of fans, and it allows older fans to celebrate what he accomplished during his all-too-short time with us. He was a trailblazer and an inspiration. He showed us what happens when hard work and passion meet Latino pride and ownership of where you come from. His life is a success story of what can happen if you wear your Latino culture proudly, and his story should serve as a reminder of what we can all achieve when we challenge others to think differently about what we are capable of, regardless of where we come from.
You can view Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage beginning on September 13th, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings) or at pbs.org/RaulJulia and the PBS Video App in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month.