One of the worst truths about Hollywood is that there has long been no place for certain kinds of people to be stars, no matter their talent or appeal. You can be so talented that William Faulkner takes the time to mention how talented you are in the same breath as saying he doesn’t like movies, and that doesn’t matter, because it’s 1949 and you are a black man from Puerto Rico. Maybe the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Brazilian mother could’ve had a niche fame playing Latin Lovers if those parents hadn’t been of African descent, but Juano Hernandez was never going to make it in Hollywood the way someone with his talent should have.
Drive, too; let’s talk about drive. Because from what little information I have on him, he appears to have been a native Spanish-speaker who learned English, then worked on perfecting that English by reading Shakespeare. And he didn’t have any formal education, so even if the part about being a native Spanish-speaker isn’t true, the Shakespeare thing is mentioned in several sources, so a man with no formal education was reading Shakespeare. He worked as a sailor, an acrobat, a singer. And, eventually, an actor, and even a recognizable one to people who didn’t watch “race films.”
I do find it interesting that his first TV appearance was on the series You Are There, a show about prominent moments in history, wherein he played Montezuma of all people. Because if you’re talking racial issues in Hollywood, you can’t limit the discussion to black and white, of course. I can decry the lack of chances for Hernandez and also point out that maybe a Hispanic actor of Aztec, not European, descent would’ve been a better choice there? But he did also get second billing in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
Because in addition to talking about the limits placed on his career, I do think we should celebrate what he did within those limits. Every time a film of his received critical attention, his performance was praised. It seems quite clear that he was known during his lifetime as a talented actor, and he did appear in several prominent films. Young Man With a Horn, where he is mentor to Kirk Douglas. The Breaking Point, where The New York Times called his performance “quietly magnificent.” Intruder in the Dust, the one Faulkner praised—and it’s based on Faulkner’s own work, so.
I have not, as it happens, seen They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, the last film Hernandez made. But there is a certain symmetry to his appearance in it, which is probably why he was cast. It’s generally considered that Hernandez paved the way for Sidney Poitier, who was actually able to become a star. And so you may not have known the name Juano Hernandez, but you know his artistic descendants. Poitier led the way for any number of other actors, of course—Denzel Washington, Will Smith, John Boyega, Chadwick Boseman. It’s a fine lineage; I think Hernandez would have been proud of his place in it.