José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón (January 8, 1912 – January 26, 1992), best known as José Ferrer, was a Puerto Rican actor, theater, and film director. He was the first Puerto Rican, as well as the first white Hispanic actor, to win an Academy Award (in 1950, for Cyrano de Bergerac).
To honor his roots, he donated his Oscar award to the University of Puerto Rico. The prolific and distinguished thespian also won several Tony Awards. In 1947, he won the Tony Award for his theatrical performance of Cyrano de Bergerac, and then in 1952, he won the Distinguished Dramatic Actor Award for The Shrike, and also the Outstanding Director Award for directing all three of The Shrike, The Fourposter, and Stalag 17.
José Ferrer’s contributions to American theater were recognized in 1981, when he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. In 1985 he received the National Medal of Arts from Ronald Reagan, becoming the first actor to receive that honor. On April 26, 2012, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in José Ferrer’s honor in their Distinguished Americans series.
Ferrer was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the son of María Providencia Cintrón, a woman who came from the small mountain town of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, and Rafael Ferrer, an attorney and writer from the capital city of the island, San Juan, Puerto Rico. He studied at the prestigious Swiss boarding school Institut Le Rosey. In 1938, Ferrer completed his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University, where he wrote his senior thesis on “French Naturalism and Pardo Bazán”. Ferrer was also a member of the Princeton Triangle Club.
Ferrer made his Broadway debut in 1935. In 1940, he played his first starring role on Broadway, the title role in Charley’s Aunt, partly in drag. He played Iago in Margaret Webster’s Broadway production of Othello (1943), which starred Paul Robeson in the title role, Webster as Emilia, and Ferrer’s wife, Uta Hagen, as Desdemona. This became the longest-running production of a Shakespearean play presented in the United States, a record that it still holds. His Broadway directing credits include The Shrike, Stalag 17, The Fourposter, Twentieth Century, Carmelina, My Three Angels, and The Andersonville Trial.
Cyrano de Bergerac
Ferrer may be best-remembered for his performance in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac, which he first played on Broadway in 1946. Ferrer feared that the production would be a failure in rehearsals, due to the open dislike for the play by director Mel Ferrer (no relation), so he called in Joshua Logan (who had directed his star-making performance in Charley’s Aunt) to serve as “play doctor” for the production. Logan wrote that he simply had to eliminate pieces of business which director Ferrer had inserted in his staging; they presumably were intended to sabotage the more sentimental elements of the play that the director considered to be corny and in bad taste. The production became one of the hits of the 1946/47 Broadway season, winning Ferrer the first Best Actor Tony Award for his depiction of the long-nosed poet/swordsman (tied with Fredric March for Ruth Gordon’s play about her own early years as an actress, Years Ago).
He reprised the role of Cyrano onstage at the New York City Center under his own direction in 1953, as well as in two films: the 1950 film of Edmond Rostand’s play directed by Michael Gordon and the 1964 French film Cyrano et d’Artagnan directed by Abel Gance.
Ferrer would go on to voice a highly truncated cartoon version of the play for an episode of The ABC Afterschool Special in 1974, and made his farewell to the part by performing a short passage from the play for the 1986 Tony Awards telecast.
Ferrer made his film debut in 1948 in the Technicolor epic Joan of Arc as the weak-willed Dauphin opposite Ingrid Bergman. Leading roles in the films Whirlpool (opposite Gene Tierney) (1949) and Crisis (opposite Cary Grant) (1950) followed, and culminated in the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac. He next played the role of Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston’s fictional 1952 biopic, Moulin Rouge.
Later stage career
Beginning circa 1950, Ferrer concentrated on film work, but would return to the stage occasionally. In 1959 Ferrer directed the original stage production of Saul Levitt’s The Andersonville Trial, about the trial following the revelation of conditions at the infamous Civil War prison. It was a hit and featured George C. Scott. He took over the direction of the troubled musical Juno from Vincent J. Donehue, who had himself taken over from Tony Richardson. The show folded after 16 performances and mixed-to extremely negative critical reaction. The show’s commercial failure (along with his earlier flop, Oh, Captain!), was a considerable setback to Ferrer’s directing career. Nor did the short-lived The Girl Who Came to Supper do much for his acting career. A notable performance of his later stage career was as Miguel de Cervantes and his fictional creation Don Quixote in the hit musical Man of La Mancha. Ferrer took over the role from Richard Kiley in 1966 and subsequently went on tour with it in the first national company of the show. Tony Martinez continued in the role of Sancho Panza under Ferrer, as he had with Kiley.
Other film work
He portrayed the Rev. Davidson in 1953’s Miss Sadie Thompson (a remake of Rain) opposite Rita Hayworth; Barney Greenwald, the embittered defense attorney, in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny; and operetta composer Sigmund Romberg in the MGM musical biopic Deep in My Heart. In 1955 Ferrer directed himself in the film version of The Shrike, with June Allyson. The Cockleshell Heroes followed a year later, along with The Great Man, both of which he also directed. In 1958 Ferrer directed and appeared in I Accuse! (as Alfred Dreyfus) and The High Cost of Loving. Ferrer also directed, but did not appear in, Return to Peyton Place in 1961 and also the remake of State Fair in 1962.
Ferrer’s other notable film roles include the Turkish Bey in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Herod Antipas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), a budding Nazi in Ship of Fools, a pompous professor in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), the treacherous Professor Siletski in the 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be, and Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV in Dune in 1984. However, in an interview given in the 1980s, he bemoaned the lack of good character parts for aging stars, and readily admitted that he now took on roles mostly for the money, such as his roles in the horror potboilers The Swarm, in which he played a doctor, and Dracula’s Dog, in which he played a police inspector.
In 1980, he had a memorable role as future Justice Abe Fortas, to whom he bore a strong resemblance, in the made-for-television film version of Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet, opposite Henry Fonda in an Emmy-nominated performance as Clarence Earl Gideon.
Radio and television
Among other radio roles, Ferrer starred as detective Philo Vance in a 1945 series of the same name.
On May 8, 1958, Ferrer guest starred on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Ferrer, not usually known for regular roles in TV series, had a recurring role as Julia Duffy’s WASPy father on the long-running television series Newhart in the 1980s. He also had a recurring role as elegant and flamboyant attorney Reuben Marino on the soap opera Another World in the early 1980s. He narrated the very first episode of the popular 1964 sitcom Bewitched, in mock documentary style. He also provided the voice of the evil Ben Haramed on the 1968 Rankin/Bass Christmas TV special The Little Drummer Boy. Ferrer would don the nose and costume of Cyrano for a last time in a TV commercial in the 1970s. During those years he guest-starred on several television series, such as Quincy, M.E., in which he played a doctor suspected of unethical behavior. In the third season of Columbo, Ferrer starred in the episode Mind over Mayhem as the ruthless head of a high tech Pentagon think tank.
In 2005, the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) renamed its Tespis Award to the HOLA José Ferrer Tespis Award.
José Ferrer was honored for his theatrical and cinematic works with an induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Arts, becoming the first actor and Hispanic to be presented with the prestigious award.
José Ferrer’s sons Rafael Ferrer and Miguel Ferrer as well as his daughter (Letty Ferrer) are also actors.
Ferrer was married five times:
Uta Hagen (1938–1948): Ferrer and Hagen had one child, their daughter Leticia (born October 15, 1940). They divorced in 1948, partly due to Hagen’s long-concealed affair with Paul Robeson, with whom Hagen and Ferrer had co-starred in the Broadway production of Othello.
Phyllis Hill (1948–1953): Ferrer and Hill wed on May 27, 1948, and they moved to Burlington, Vermont in 1950, where they subsequently found it difficult to keep their marriage together. Jose returned to Puerto Rico because his mother died. He soon returned to Vermont smoking heavily. They divorced on January 12, 1953.
Rosemary Clooney (1953–1961): Ferrer first married Clooney on June 1, 1953 in Durant, Oklahoma. They moved to Santa Monica, California, in 1954, and then to Los Angeles in 1958. Ferrer and Clooney had five children: Miguel (born February 7, 1955), Maria (born August 9, 1956), Gabriel (born August 1, 1957), Monsita (born October 13, 1958) and Rafael (born March 23, 1960). They divorced for the first time in 1961.
Rosemary Clooney (1964–1967): Ferrer and Clooney remarried on November 22, 1964 in Los Angeles; however, the marriage again crumbled while Ferrer was carrying on an affair with the woman who would become his last wife, Stella Magee. Clooney found out about the affair, and she and Ferrer divorced for the last time in 1967.
Stella Magee (1977–1992): Ferrer married Magee in 1977, and they remained so until his death.
He is a cousin of professional tennis player Gigi Fernández.
José Ferrer was fluent in Spanish, English, French, and Italian.
Ferrer donated his Academy Award trophy to the University of Puerto Rico as a tribute to his roots.
Following a brief battle with colon cancer, Ferrer died in Coral Gables, Florida in 1992, and was interred in Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan in his native Puerto Rico.
Year Title Role Notes
1948 Joan of Arc The Dauphin, Charles VII, Nominated – Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1949 Whirlpool David Korvo
1950 Cyrano de Bergerac Cyrano de Bergerac, Academy Award for Best Actor, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
1950 Crisis Raoul Farrago
1950 The Secret Fury José
1952 Moulin Rouge Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
1952 Anything Can Happen Giorgi Papashvily
1953 Miss Sadie Thompson Alfred Davidson
1953 Producers’ Showcase: “Cyrano de Bergerac” Cyrano de Bergerac Nominated – Emmy Award Best Actor – Single Performance
1954 Deep in My Heart Sigmund Romberg
1954 The Caine Mutiny Lt. Barney Greenwald Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor
1955 The Cockleshell Heroes Major Stringer Ferrer was also Director
1955 The Shrike Jim Downs
1956 The Great Man Joe Harris
1958 The High Cost of Loving Jim ‘Jimbo’ Fry
1958 I Accuse! Capt. Alfred Dreyfus
1961 Return to Peyton Place as Director only
1961 Forbid Them Not Narrator
1962 Lawrence of Arabia Turkish Bey
1963 Stop Train 349 Cowan the Reporter
1963 Nine Hours to Rama Supt. Gopal Das
1964 Cyrano et d’Artagnan Cyrano de Bergerac
1965 Ship of Fools Siegfried Rieber
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told Herod Antipas
1967 Cervantes Hassan Bey
1967 Enter Laughing Mr. Marlowe
1975 El Clan de los inmorales Inspector Reed
1976 The Big Bus Ironman
1976 Forever Young, Forever Free Father Alberto
1976 Paco Fermin Flores
1976 Voyage of the Damned Manuel Benitez
1977 The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover Lionel McCoy
1977 Who Has Seen the Wind The Ben
1977 The Sentinel Priest of the Brotherhood
1977 Crash! Marc Denne
1978 The Swarm Dr. Andrews
1978 Dracula’s Dog Inspector Branco
1978 Fedora Doctor Vando
1978 The Return of Captain Nemo Captain Nemo
1979 Natural Enemies Harry Rosenthal
1979 The Fifth Musketeer Athos
1979 A Life of Sin Bishop
1980 The Big Brawl Domenici
1981 Bloody Birthday Doctor
1982 Blood Tide Nereus
1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy Leopold
1983 To Be or Not to Be Prof. Siletski
1983 The Being Mayor Gordon Lane
1984 Dune Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV
1984 The Evil That Men Do Dr. Hector Lomelin
1987 The Sun and the Moon
1988 Hitler’s SS Portrait in Evil
1990 Hired to Kill Rallis
1990 Old Explorers Warner Watney
1992 Laam Gong juen ji faan fei jo fung wan