Okay, so it’s a little depressing how many people first think of José Ferrer standing next to Sting with the latter in a metal bikini brief. I won’t deny being one of them. It’s likely I saw other things he was in first; if nothing else, it’s possible I saw his episodes of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. And of course probably no few people first think of him as “Miguel’s dad,” which is interesting on that level where I’m always interested by where people think of people first. And of course part of the ongoing “parent versus child” thing you get into with, say, the Sutherlands. But there’s so much to José Ferrer beyond Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, a phrase I can be sure I’m spelling correctly without looking it up.
He was born into a fairly well-off Puerto Rican family. His grandfather had been an advocate of the island’s independence from Spain. When Ferrer was two, his family moved to New York; he later attended a Swiss boarding school and got a Bachelor’s in architecture from Princeton. He was a member of the Triangle Club, Princeton’s theatre group, and to my unending delight had a group called “José Ferrer and His Pied Pipers,” for which he played piano. The next year, he was already a professional actor, breaking into the industry in part with the help of last week’s honoree Ruth Gordon, and the year after that would make his Broadway debut.
While he wasn’t always in successful plays—In Clover ran a whopping three performances—he definitely did a lot of hits. For one thing, his Othello, which he appeared in as Iago opposite Paul Robeson in the lead, remains the longest-running Shakespeare production on Broadway. And, of course, there was his Cyrano. He played it on Broadway, fighting against director Mel Ferrer No Relation, who thought bits of the play were silly and dated, and then played the role in the 1950 movie, for which he became the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award. (Which he donated to the University of Puerto Rico and which was stolen in 2000 and I am super angry about this.)
He was angry at how few roles there were for aging actors, which fair. I can’t imagine it was his life’s dream to play the emperor of the known universe in a weird but seriously packed sci-fi epic. The man ended up in The Concorde . . . Airport ’79, a movie wherein Lloyd Bridges rolls down the window of the cockpit of the Concorde to fire a flare out it and deflect a heat-seeking missile. (That has nothing to do with Ferrer, but I had to share.) And an episode of Magnum. The fact is, he’s right. A lot of older actors end up with that sort of career, because if you keep acting and you aren’t the grandparent type, there are not a ton of roles for you.
And while he wasn’t really the grandparent type, apparently he was the uncle type. Specifically, Tío José, Luis on Sesame Street‘s uncle. He appeared on two episodes, notably the two including “Maria and Luis Get Married.” There’s a lot of discussion about why Maria married Luis after having dated David for seasons, but yeah, either way, it was decided that the pair would be shown to have strong, supportive families, and bringing in an Oscar winner to play a minor role for two episodes is not unknown in the Muppet universe.