February 15, 1907– Cesar Romero
His most famous role was The Joker on the campy television series Batman (1966-69), or maybe Estaban de la Cruz in the brief run of Zorro (1957-59). Both of those were television shows, but Romero was also a kind of minor star in Hollywood’s Golden Age where he usually portrayed the cliché Latin lover character in such innuendo-titled films as The Gay Caballero (1940), The Good Fairy (1935), The Devil Is A Woman (1935), Love That Brute (1937), and The Leather Saint (1956).
From everything I have read and everything told to me, Cesar Julio Romero, Jr. was the consummate professional, brimming with talent, and a total nice guy, one of the good ones. Famous as the “Latin From Manhattan”, he was Hollywood’s most popular date. He was also a gay man.
In showbiz insider Boze Hadleigh’s juicy book Hollywood Gays (1996), Romero gave a revealing, humorous account of what life was like during that era in Hollywood for a closeted gay man, or in Romero’s case: Gay, Catholic and Latino. Romero was only in the closet to fans and the press, but he was “out” to all his industry colleagues. Romero’s gayness was Hollywood’s worst kept secret. Romero claimed that he was busy servicing Desi Arnaz and at the same time he was escorting Lucille Ball to premiers and parties. He also spills the beans about gay politics, truck stops, glory holes, Joan Crawford, and Carmen Miranda.
After a hard day at the studio, Romero was always up for some nightlife. There was rarely a film premier, fashion show or gallery opening where the debonair, dramatically dressed gentleman was not seen with a famous star on his arm: Crawford, Linda Darnell, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman, and Ginger Rogers were among his beards.
“You see, very, very often, I was out dancing with one actress or another. And that got press. Even when it didn’t, the whole town knew I was a dancing fool, and since I couldn’t very well dance with a man, they saw me dancing with a lady, and… what they saw was what they got in their heads.”
Romero’s actual closets held 30 tuxedos, 200 sport coats, and 500 bespoke suits. In his era, the running joke was: “Romero would attend the opening of a napkin”. He was especially well equipped for the job: handsome, 6 ft. 2 in., suave, witty and perfectly decked-out. Romero’s signature trimmed mustache was so identified with his persona that he refused to shave it off as The Joker in the Batman series. Makeup artists had to use heavy white pancake on top of the ‘stache.
Romero rarely spent an evening in his Brentwood home that he shared with his sister. I like to think that after he dropped off his beautiful date from some big Hollywood shindig, he would end up in the arms of his longtime lover Tyrone Power.
Romero was born to wealthy Manhattan parents. His father was born in Italy and made his fortune in an import/export business and his Cuban mother was a concert singer. Romero’s first job was as a ballroom dancer, his first appearance on Broadway was in the musical Lady Do (1927), and his first Hollywood role was in the B-film The Shadow Laughs (1933).
During WW II, Romero served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Pacific, and then immediately returned to his acting career. Known for his charm and discretion, Romero had a reputation as the quintessential “confirmed bachelor”, although most people in Hollywood knew all about his long relationship with Power, and his assignations with Gene Raymond, Van Johnson and other actors. In a nutty footnote, Romero’s Hollywood social nickname was “Butch”.
Romero had supporting roles in nearly 100 films from the 1930s through the 1980s: Musicals, Period Pieces, Westerns, Noir, Comedy, he did it all.
In 1953, Romero starred in a 39 episode television serial, Passport To Danger, and he continued to do guest spots on television shows: I Love Lucy, including the special Lucy Takes A Cruise To Havana episode, 77 Sunset Strip, Fantasy Island, and Murder She Wrote(unfortunately, not in the episode in which I appear).
Of course, Romero achieved his greatest fame as The Joker in the highly successful, crazy Batman series. He repeated the role in the 1966 film version, making him the first film Joker, before Jack Nicholson. Like Heath Ledger in the same role 40 years later, he was robbed of an Academy Award.
My favorite anecdote about Romero: He danced with Carmen Miranda on a live broadcast of The Milton Berle Show. Wearing her usual glittering sequins and colorful fruit hat, Miranda decided to forgo her panties while changing between acts, and when Romero twirled her above his head, she exposed her mango to millions of television viewers across the USA. Talk about your wardrobe malfunctions!
Enduringly popular with audiences and co-workers, the rather wealthy Romero didn’t need to, but he continued to work steadily through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
He had a terrific sense of humor. Once, after taping a talk show featuring him and a beauty queen, the technician began removing their clip-on microphones, and Romero quipped:
“You can do the young lady first. The young queen before the old queen.”
In 1968, at 61-years-old, Romero was named The Most Beautiful Man In The World by TV Guide, described as possessing “hair the color of stainless steel, an alert, erect posture, and charm to spare“. In 1985, when he was 78-years-old, the still handsome Romero was cast as Jane Wyman’s love interest on the popular night time soap Falcon Crest (1981-1990). Take that Ronnie Reagan! Romero:
“Those beautiful actresses all had individuality and a flair for glamour. Years ago the gals were real stars. There was an excitement to the business then.”
The elegant Romero was loved and adored by his fellow actors, friends and fans. He was taken from this existence by a blood clot on New Year’s Day, 1994. He was recently voted Best Dressed In Heaven by a jury of swank angels.