Before success was measured solely by box office numbers, Raul Julia was every actor’s definition of the word success. Whether playing Othello on Broadway or Rafael, the maintenance man on Sesame Street, Raul an actor and philanthropist, was an artist with an instinct for portraying unforgettable characters, who embodied the mantra “there are no small parts”.
Born on March 9, 1940 in San Juan, Puerto Rico Julia was one of four children raised in a devout Catholic home. With an opera singing mother and electrical engineer for a father Raul Rafael Carlos, Julia’s fate could have gone differently. Thankfully for us he performed in his first play in grammar school and continued through San Ignacio de Loyola High School where he was active in the school’s drama program. He went on to University of Puerto Rico where he studied drama and followed his passion to the stage full time. After graduating he appeared in local plays and a night club act. During this time he was discovered by actor Orson Bean who encouraged him to pursue a career in New York City.
Landing on the mainland in 1964 Raul earned his stripes and honed his craft for nearly a decade taking odd jobs and roles in Off Broadway shows. He crossed paths with Miriam Colon, founder of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and performed in her shows. It was here that theater legend Joseph Papp saw him and hired Raul to join the New York Shakespeare Festival. His work with the festival led to classic roles such as Edmund in “King Lear,” the lead in “Othello” and “The Gentlemen of Verona.” This was between regular work on television shows like Love of Life and Sesame Street.
Raul’s theater training led him to the next stage of his career – movies. He first came to national attention in 1985 when he played a political prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Raul took on comedic, dramatic parts in hits (The Panic in Needle Park, Presumed Innocent) and misses (Moon Over Parador, Onassis). His most memorable roles came from unexpected films—murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero in Romero; Gomez Addams in The Addams Family; and General Bison in Street Fighter.
However, Raul also made an impact on audiences off-screen. Learning from his parents who cared for orphaned children he regularly worked for free or little pay to support causes he championed. The father of two sons worked tirelessly to end world hunger by donating food monthly to The Hunger Project as well as being the organizations spokesperson for 17 years. He supported young actors by sponsoring screenwriting workshops and worked with the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors to promote Latin American artists. Although Raul did not return to the island, he was a true native son who supported the Puerto Rican film industry by working for free or little pay in its projects.
In 1993 Raul was diagnosed with stomach cancer but continued to work and completed the Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story about Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes. A year later he had an unexpected stroke and passed away from complications from it in the fall of 1994 in New York.
Even after his passing Raul’s work was honored. He received four awards posthumously for his role as Chico Mendes and is the only actor to receive a posthumous Golden Globe and Emmy award. Raul was remembered with services and memorials across the country but the biggest was on his island. Raul was one of a handful of civilians that received a state funeral when his body was returned to Puerto Rico. Thousands attended two memorials services—one at his high school and the other at the Institute of Puerto Rican culture.
His charitable legacy continues thanks to scholarships, awards, and workshops that provide educational aid, free acting classes, and recognition to other philanthropic artists.
While Raul was once quote for saying that “what’s behind me is not important!” we could not disagree more. The life, legacy and body of work Raul Julia causes many to aspire to the life he left behind.