By Edward Copeland
CYRANO: You may go. Or tell me, why are you staring at my nose?
THE MEDDLER: No!
CYRANO: It disgusts you, then? Does its color appear to you unwholesome? Or its form obscene?
THE MEDDLER: But I've been careful not to look!
CYRANO: And why not if you please? Possibly you find it just a trifle large!
José Ferrer played many roles throughout his lengthy career on stage, screen, television and even radio, but none loomed larger than Cyrano de Bergerac, who actually was a 17th century dramatist and swordsman but gained famed only in other authors' works loosely based on his life, most notably the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand. Without a doubt, Cyrano became Ferrer's signature role from the moment he placed the fake proboscis on his face and stepped onto the stage of The Alvin Theatre on Oct. 8, 1946 (Though on Nov. 18 of that year, the production moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre). His Roxane happened to be the late Frances Reid, best known for her 44-year-run as Alice Horton on the soap Days of Our Lives. I'll get back to Ferrer and Cyrano later in this tribute to the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor, Emmy and Directors Guild nominee and first actor to receive the U.S. National Medal of Arts, who was born 100 years ago today as José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón in the Santurce district of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ferrer's father was a respected attorney and writer in San Juan. His parents sent José to the prestigious Swiss boarding school Institut Le Rosey, which was founded in 1880 and has educated children of royalty from all parts of the world. After his attendance there, Ferrer went to Princeton University, where he graduated either in 1933 or 1934 (depends which source you read at the time). While at Princeton, he was a member of its famous Princeton Triangle Club, the oldest collegiate musical-comedy theater troupe in the U.S. which was founded in 1891. Since its creation, the club has counted as members Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joshua Logan, James Stewart, Wayne Rogers, David E. Kelley and Brooke Shields. Regardless of whether he graduated in '33 or '34, it didn't take Ferrer long to make his Broadway debut, even if it were merely the role of Second Policeman in the comedy A Slight Case of Murder. Written by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay, the play opened Sept. 11, 1935, and played for 69 performances at The 48th Street Theatre, a theater that hasn't been renamed but was destroyed when a water tower collapsed on Aug. 24, 1955. When A Slight Case of Murder closed, Ferrer moved almost directly into another comedy, Stick-in-the-Mud by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan which starred Thomas Mitchell, who also directed. Ferrer was cast as the chauffeur. The play's run was a brief one — it lasted only nine performances at the same 48th Street Theatre. It would be eight months before Ferrer would appear on The Great White Way again. When Ferrer tread the Broadway boards again in August 1936 in the Philip Barry comedy Spring Dance, another quick closer, lasting only 24 performances at The Empire Theatre, which was demolished in 1953 so an office tower could be built. His next Broadway role changed everything. The play was a huge hit and Ferrer got his largest part yet. The production was the comedy Brother Rat by John Monks Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe and was produced and directed by the legendary George Abbott, who was a spry 49 years old then (He was 107 when he died in 1995, outliving Ferrer by three years). The plot revolved around three senior cadets at the Virginia Military Institute where one is secretly married and about to be a father. Ferrer played Dan Crawford, one of the three, opposite Eddie Albert as Bing Edwards, the dad-to-be, and Frank Albertson as Billy Randolph. The show ran 577 performances at The Biltmore Theatre (now The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) through May 1938. By October 1938, a movie version of Brother Rat had hit movie theaters, though only Albert re-created his stage role. Ferrer's part in the film went to Ronald Reagan, who met Jane Wyman on the film's production. It's unclear when Ferrer exited the Broadway production, but he appeared in two other Broadway plays while Brother Rat still was running. A very significant event occurred in Ferrer's life in 1938, the year Brother Rat did close though — he wed Uta Hagen, who would go on to become an esteemed actress herself and an even more legendary acting teacher. The next notable Broadway production in which Ferrer appeared was the debut of Maxwell Anderson's Key Largo on Nov. 27, 1939. Based on the Brooks Atkinson review of the play in The New York Times archives and the fact that none of the characters has the same names as the characters in John Huston's famous 1948 film version, it's difficult to tell who played what part. Paul Muni was the star of the Broadway production in what would seem to be the equivalent of the Humphrey Bogart role, though Ferrer plays a character named Frank (and received Atkinson's praise) as Bogie did in the film, though with a different last name. Hagen played Ferrer's Victor's sister. I can't be positive who plays the Johnny Rocco equivalent, but the play also featured Karl Malden as Hunk and James Gregory in his Broadway debut as Jerry. In October 1940, Ferrer received his first undisputed lead role in a smash as he starred in a revival of the drag farce Charley's Aunt under Joshua Logan's direction. The revival ran for 233 performances at The Cort Theatre, which still bears that name today.
Two days before Charley's Aunt opened on Oct. 17, 1940, Ferrer and Hagen premiered another collaboration: daughter Leticia Thyra. Ferrer stayed with Charley's Aunt through May 3, 1941. On Sept. 22, 1942, S.M. Herzig's Vickie debuted on Broadway, marking Ferrer's Broadway directing debut. He also played the husband of the title character, whose role was filled by Hagen. Also in the cast were Red Buttons and Mildred Dunnock. The comedy only played at The Plymouth Theatre (now The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre) for 48 performances. Sometime in February 1943, Ferrer replaced Danny Kaye for the final month of performances of the hit musical Let's Face It! with songs by Cole Porter and a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Ferrer's next Broadway engagement turned out to be a landmark in the history of that strip of Manhattan theater. Ferrer played Iago and Hagen played Desdemona opposite Paul Robeson in the title role as Shakespeare's Othello. The revival of the famous tragedy opened at The Shubert Theatre on Oct. 19, 1943 and ran 296 performances before taking a break to take the play on tour. The trio returned in May 22, 1945 for 24 more performances, this time at The City Center. To this date, it is the longest running Shakespeare production in Broadway history. While Ferrer was playing Iago, Billy Wilder pursued him because he wanted the actor to play the lead in The Lost Weekend, however Paramount refused to let Wilder hire him, insisting he cast a name. They pursued Cary Grant, who passed but finally got Ray Milland who won an Oscar for the role, despite his initial reluctance to take the part. On a personal level, Othello would leave to an unhappy side effect for Ferrer. Robeson and Hagen had an affair, leading the Ferrers to divorce in 1948. Before their split, Ferrer kept himself busy. On radio, he had a successful series playing detective Philo Vance in 1945. On Nov. 29, 1945, Lillian Smith's play Strange Fruit opened at The Royale Theatre (now the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre). Ferrer produced and directed the production which starred a different though unrelated Ferrer — actor Mel Ferrer, still going by his full first name Melchor. Also in the cast were Murray Hamilton and Ralph Meeker. It ran 60 performances. The two Ferrers would swap roles in José's next Broadway production, though José would produce it while Melchor directed and José starred in the Oct. 8, 1946, premiere of Cyrano de Bergerac. Meeker also was part of the cast as was the actress Phyllis Hill, who would become Ferrer's second wife in 1948 soon after his divorce from Uta Hagen.
"José Ferrer has administered a lively draft of tonic to this season by staging Cyrano de Bergerac as though he meant it. Acting the part of the braggart romantic, he is appearing at the Alvin in a pulsating performance that makes full use of the modern theatre. Although Cyrano is no longer a modern play, it is still one of the most dashing ever written, particularly in the Brian Hooker version that preserves the bravura of the Rostand text in light verse of a modern idiom." That's how Brooks Atkinson began his review in The New York Times on Oct. 9, 1946. Atkinson heaped praise upon practically all aspects of the production — even giving a shout-out to the stage hands for moving the scenery, The critic closes by writing, "Mr. Ferrer has done Cyrano in the grand manner, like a man who gets fun as well as a living out of the theatre." Another notable name composed the incidental music for the production: the renaissance man Paul Bowles. Ferrer's revival ran 193 performances through March 22, 1947 and its run coincided with the inaugural year of the Antoinette Perry Awards, better known by its shorthand name, the Tony, presented by The American Theatre Wing. The Tonys were presented for the first time on April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria. The American Theatre Wing handed out 11 Tonys in seven categories that first evening. Ferrer's performance in Cyrano was honored for dramatic actor alongside Fredric March in Years Ago. Four others won for acting that first year, including Ingrid Bergman in Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine and Helen Hayes in Happy Birthday, both for dramatic actress. Shortly before Cyrano ended its run, Ferrer produced and directed a five-performance run of As We Forgive Our Debtors for the American National Theatre and Academy after originally being staged by The Experimental Theatre Inc. When the play closed, Ferrer finally prepared to leave New York, ironically in the film version of the play that won Ingrid Bergman her Tony. Retitled Joan of Arc, the Victor Fleming film premiered in 1948 with Ferrer portraying the Dauphin. He earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his film debut. It's been a long time since I've seen the film, but I remember him being the best thing in it other than the vibrant Technicolor cinematography.
Once Ferrer returned from California and making his first feature film, he started bouncing between the media of stage, screen and television. Between January 1948 and May 1949, Ferrer either starred, directed, produced, co-adapted or some combination of those in five Broadway shows. In January 1949, he appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse and reprised his role in a televised version of Cyrano de Bergerac. He returned to the same showcase in April to play Sammy Glick in Paddy Chayefsky's adaptation of Budd Schulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run? In November 1949, he appeared in his second feature role, playing the manipulative hypnotist in Otto Preminger's thriller Whirlpool. Another fabled story has it that Ferrer was the first choice to play Addison De Witt in All About Eve, but the role went to George Sanders, who of course won the 1950 best supporting actor Oscar for the part. This time period wasn't an easy one for artists and like so many in his field, Ferrer found himself caught up in the Communist witchhunts of the time. Former co-star and friend Paul Robeson had his own problems above and beyond the run-of-the mill ones associated with others who ended up on HUAC-inspired blacklists when in March 1950, at the last minute, NBC canceled his planned appearance on Eleanor Roosevelt's program and banned him from its network while the U.S. State Department lifted his passport, effectively confining the Soviet-friendly artist from leaving the country. Red Channels, an anti-Communist pamphlet by the right-wing magazine Counterattack published on June 22, 1950, a list of 151 artists it claimed had Communist ties — including Ferrer and his ex-wife, Uta Hagen. It affected Hagen immediately and she never did much outside theater, but Ferrer held off repercussions for a bit as he had two films coming out in 1950.
A couple of weeks after his name appeared on the Red Channels list, the movie Crisis opened. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, Crisis starred Cary Grant as a brain surgeon on vacation with his wife in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country where Ferrer played its dictator, who happens to have a life-threatening tumor. Grant's doctor must decide whether he should keep his oath to save lives or let the tyrant die and give the country a chance at freedom. Later in 1950, Ferrer put on the big nose again in Michael Gordon's film version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Ferrer would win the best actor Oscar (so he and Sanders won in the same year) becoming the first Hispanic actor and first Puerto Rican actor to win an Academy Award. Ferrer is one of only nine performers to win both Oscars and Tonys for playing the same role, sharing that distinction with Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses). Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), Yul Brynner (The King and I), Joel Grey (Cabaret), Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady). Lila Kedrova (Zorba the Greek/Zorba) and Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons). To honor his Puerto Rican roots, Ferrer donated his Oscar to the University of Puerto Rico. Ferrer played Cyrano in a television production again on Oct. 17, 1955, on Producers' Showcase and received an Emmy nomination for best actor — single performance. Because the Emmys always have been screwed up, Ferrer also was nominated as best actor in 1951, though even their official database doesn't know for what and the only TV credits IMDb shows prior to 1951 were those two appearances mentioned earlier. At any rate, Ferrer remains the only actor in history to be nominated for an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony for playing the same role. He also returned to the Cyrano role in a 1953 production he directed at City Center in New York (the year his marriage to Phyllis Hill ended). In a March 1956 episode of the Burns and Allen show, he played Cyrano again, but only as a voice. Abel Gance directed him as Cyrano in French in the 1964 film Cyrano et d'Artagnan. He did Cyrano's voice again in a March 1974 ABC Afterschool Special. On a 1980s Tony telecast, Ferrer recited from the play a final time and then hung up the nose for good.
When Cyrano de Bergerac opened and throughout the time of his nomination and Oscar win, Ferrer had returned to New York where he produced, directed and starred in a revival of the comedy Twentieth Century opposite another 1950 Oscar nominee — Sunset Blvd.'s Norma Desmond herself, Gloria Swanson. In the 1951-52 Broadway season, Ferrer directed three big plays. In addition to directing, he produced the premiere of Stalag 17, staged the key Hume Cronyn-Jessica Tandy teaming in The Fourposter and directed, produced and starred in The Shrike. When the 1952 Tonys came out, Ferrer won best actor in a play for The Shrike as well as best director for all three plays. In Hollywood, he had two films come out. The first was the comedy Anything Can Happen. The second and far more important film was John Huston's Moulin Rouge where Ferrer played the famed painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as well as The Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter's father. When Ferrer received an Oscar nomination, it was the first instance of a performer being nominated for portraying two distinct characters in the same film. Before that happened though, that Red Channels list controversy finally hit. As William O'Neill wrote in his chapter on The Blacklist in his book A Better World: Stalin and the American Intellectuals:
On Dec. 27, 1952, the American Legion announced that it disapproved of…Moulin Rouge, starring José Ferrer, who used to be no more progressive than hundreds of other actors and had already been grilled by HUAC.…Nine members of the Legion had picketed it anyway, giving rise to the controversy. By this time, people were not taking any chances. Ferrer immediately wired the Legion's national commander that he would be glad to join the veterans in their "fight against communism." A few days later, Ferrer denounced Paul Robeson for accepting the Stalin Peace Prize. On Jan. 2, Leonard Lyons a columnist, wrote that the Legion opposed any further picketing of Moulin Rouge. Victor Lasky, another red-baiting columnist, was said to have withdrawn an article on Ferrer he had written for the Legion's magazine. On the 16th, Lyons reported the Ferrer had ironed out all his problems with Legion officials over lunch.
As I mentioned earlier, 1953 was the year when Ferrer and Phyllis Hill ended their marriage. It also was the year that Ferrer married his third wife, singer and actress Rosemary Clooney. The couple had three sons and two daughters. Their marriage ended eight years later in 1961, though they tried again and remarried in 1964 only to divorce again in 1967. Their first child, born in 1955, was son Miguel, who would become an actor in his own right, always will be treasured by Twin Peaks fans for his role as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfeld. The resemblance between father and son shows through clearly when you compare the b&w photo of José from Whirlpool three paragraphs above to the photo of Miguel as Albert in this paragraph. The marriage of José and Rosemary connected to branches of many entertainment families. It made José the uncle of George Clooney. Their son Gabriel married Debby Boone, who sang the 1977 pop hit "You Light Up My Life," which made Ferrer and Clooney the in-laws of Pat and Shirley Boone. While Ferrer only made one feature film with Rosemary Clooney (1954's Deep in My Heart), the spouses appeared on many entertainment TV shows together as well as The Ed Sullivan Show and an appearance on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. In 1964, competed against each other on an episode of the game show Password All-Stars. Even before he married Clooney though, Ferrer was somewhat of a regular fixture on all sorts of TV shows as himself as early as 1949 including The Milton Berle Show, Penthouse Party hosted by Betty Furness and three appearances on Your Show of Shows. Without his new bride, he appeared on shows including Tonight! when Steve Allen was host, two episodes of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and the game shows What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret.
For the most part, though Ferrer kept working nearly continuously until his death, the decade of the 1950s marked his heyday across all media. "The truth is I made a few good movies in the '50s, then went into freefall," Ferrer was quoted as saying, but his stage and television work didn't bring the acclaim they once did either. The Oscar nomination he received for Moulin Rouge was his third and final one, though I believe he should have been a contender for supporting actor for his role as Lt. Barney Greenwald, lawyer for the accused mutineers in 1954's The Caine Mutiny. The British Academy of Film nominated Ferrer as best foreign actor for his part, mainly for his superb drunken dressing down of his clients after he has cleared them and exposed Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg as a nutcase on the stand. Edward Dmytryk, the sole member of The Hollywood Ten who turned friendly HUAC witness after serving jail time, directed the film. The Oscars deservingly nominated Bogart as lead but from a supporting cast that also included fine work from Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray, instead nominated the milquetoast Tom Tully. In 1955, he made his film directing debut as he re-created his Tony-winning role The Shrike. He directed six feature films in total: The Cockleshell Heroes (1956); The Great Man (1957), which earned him a Directors Guild of America nomination alongside 16 other contenders though the prize went to David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai; I Accuse! (1958) where Ferrer played Capt. Dreyfuss in a screenplay by Gore Vidal; and The High Cost of Living (1958). The final two films Ferrer helmed didn't star him: 1961's Return to Peyton Place and the 1962 remake of State Fair starring future in-law Pat Boone. Other notable films in which Ferrer would appear throughout his life included Lawrence of Arabia, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ship of Fools, the hilarious 1976 disaster spoof The Big Bus where Ferrer plays the villain who spends the film in an iron lung, Voyage of the Damned, finally got to work with Billy WIlder on Wilder's penultimate film, Fedora, made a disaster movie that meant to be serious — The Swarm, Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, the remake of To Be or Not to Be and David Lynch's Dune.
Ferrer's theater career in New York for the remainder of the 1950s resembled reruns. Three days after Ferrer finished the 1953 revival of Cyrano he directed himself in at City Center, Ferrer did the same at City Center with The Shrike. Three days after The Shrike closed at the location, Ferrer acted there in the title role of Shakespeare's Richard III for The New York City Theatre Company with a cast that included Vincent Price and Maureen Stapleton. Two days after The Bard's work ended its run, Ferrer reached into his past again, starring and directing a revival of Charley's Aunt at City Center. One year and a day after the curtain fell on that revival, Ferrer directed Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy at City Center in a revival of The Fourposter. It took three years for Ferrer to return to work on something in New York theater. The project was the original musical comedy Oh Captain!, based on the 1953 comedy The Captain's Paradise starring Alec Guinness. Ferrer directed the musical and co-wrote the book with Al Morgan. Music and lyrics were by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and Tony Randall played the Guinness role in the musical. The show received six Tony nominations, including the last Ferrer would ever receive for co-writing the book. Ferrer would direct three more shows in the 1950s, only one of which he would act in (Edwin Booth), the second which was the third director to work on a troubled musical (Juno) and the last was the play The Andersonville Trial where he butted heads with star George C. Scott. When he returned to Broadway in December 1963, it was in the original Noel Coward musical The Girl Who Came to Supper co-starring Florence Henderson. Ferrer briefly replaced Richard Kiley in the lead role of the gigantic hit Man of La Mancha in May 1966 and did well enough to lead the first national touring company of the musical. He wouldn't do any Broadway work again for 13 years, though he did some off-Broadway productions. In 1972, he directed The Web and the Rock. He succeeded Ellis Rabb in the role of Robert in the Gerald Gutierrez-directed production of David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre at some point in its run from Oct. 20, 1977-July 9, 1978. Finally, he produced and starred in White Pelicans, written and directed by Jay Broad, which ran for 14 performances beginning Oct. 19, 1978, at Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre). Ferrer's last work on Broadway was his direction of the new musical Carmelina with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Brigadoon), music by Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and book by Lerner and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba). It only ran 17 performances and received a single Tony nomination best original score. Ferrer was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1981. The hall's inductees' names get inscribed in gold lettering on the walls of the upper levels of the Gershwin Theatre, one of Broadway's largest houses.
From the 1960s on, the bulk of Ferrer's work came on television. In 1964, he was the uncredited narrator of the first three episodes of Bewitched, explaining the story of Samantha admitting to Darrin that she's a witch before they wed. Rumor has it that the producers of the TV series Batman pursued Ferrer first to play The Joker. He also provided the voice of Ben Haramed, the man who kidnaps Aaron to put in his act in the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Little Drummer Boy in 1968. His presence became a common one on episodic television such as The Name of the Game, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, the movie that served as the pilot for Kojak, the "Mind Over Mayhem" episode of Columbo, Banyon, Starsky and Hutch, Magnum, P.I., Quincy, M.E., Murder, She Wrote, Hotel, Matlock and the requisite appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Ferrer took roles in many television movies and miniseries including A Case of Libel, The Rhinemann Exchange, Gideon's Trumpet, Evita Peron, Peter and Paul, Blood Feud, Samson and Delilah, George Washington, Hitler's S.S.: Portrait in Evil, Strange Interlude for PBS' American Playhouse. He also appeared on Sesame Street in 1988 as Tio Jose' to attend the wedding of Luis and Maria. Between 1985-87, he guest-starred eight times on Newhart as Arthur Vanderkellen, the father of spoiled maid/heiress Stephanie (Julia Duffy). Between 1989-91, he appeared on the soap opera Another World four times as Reuben Marino, an attorney involved in a custody suit. Ferrer's final work on film came out posthumously and only opened in Hong Kong. It's an action film called Lam Gong juen ji fan fei jo fung wan or Attack the Restless and starred Leslie Cheung.
Ferrer was married for the fifth and final time to Stella Daphne Magee in 1977, a marriage that lasted until his death. In 1985, he was the first actor to receive the National Medal of Arts alongside the other honorees for that year composer Elliott Carter Jr., arts patron Dorothy Chandler, writer Ralph Ellison, dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, corporate arts patron Hallmark Cards, arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, arts patron Paul Mellon, sculptor Louise Nevelson, painter, Georgia O'Keeffe, soprano Leonytne Pryce and arts patron Alice Tully.
Ferrer passed away on Jan. 26, 1992, in Coral Gables, Fla., following a brief battle with colon cancer at 82. He is interred in Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan in his native Puerto Rico.