Saturday, February 22, 2014

Uncle Butch in Hollywood

1940's matinee idol Cesar Julio Romero, Jr. was born in NYC, February 15, 1907. Despite playing a latin lover in numerous musicals and romantic comedies opposite Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable, he is probably best remembered as the Joker in the campy "Batman" 1960's TV series, a role which put him on TV Guide's 2013 list of "The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time."

In this photo, Romero plays Khoda Khan opposite Shirley Temple in the 1937 John Ford classic, "Wee Willie Winkie."

Romero was never married; according to the Hollywood gossip rags, he was a "confirmed bachelor" (secret code word of the day). He was never at a loss for "dates" though when it came to parties and premieres, as he was frequently photographed with Joan Crawford (who dubbed him "Uncle Butch"), Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, Jane Wyman, and Ginger Rogers.

Romero was teamed with Shirley Temple again in 1939, portraying Ram Dass (someone's idea of a bad pun?) in "The Little Princess."

As The Joker in the hit TV series Batman, Romero refused to shave his trademark mustache for the role, which is why viewers can see his trademark mustache poking through the white clown makeup he wore. Sure, Jack Nicholson did a great job on the silver screen as The Joker, but Romero's crazy interpretation will always be tops in my book. Recalling how he got the part:

"I was very surprised when [producer William Dozier] called me and said he was doing a series called Batman (1966) and the important characters were the villains. They had done the first two with the Riddler and the Penguin with Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, and now they were ready to do the third, and the villain was the Joker. He said, 'I would like you to play the part.' So I said I would like to read the script and know what it is all about. He said, "Come on over to the studio, and I will show you the film of the first episode.' Of course, it was great. I said, 'Let me read this Joker part, and if it is as good as the first one, hell yes, I will do it.' So I read the script, and I thought it was a gas, and I said, 'Sure, I'll do it.' Why Dozier wanted me for Batman, I'll never know, because I asked his wife, Ann Rutherford, 'Why did Bill think of me for this part?' She said, 'I don't know, Butch. He said he saw you in something, and he said, 'He's the one I want to play the Joker'.' I haven't the slightest idea what it was he saw me in, because I had never done anything like it before."

Here he is with Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. They were puuuuuurfect together.

"I had enormous fun playing the Joker on 'Batman.' I ended up doing something like 20 episodes of it, as well as the full-length feature film version, 'Batman: The Movie.' There was certainly nothing hard about that assignment! Even the make-up sessions weren't too bad. It took about an hour-and-a-half to put the full make-up on, including the green wig. I didn't mind it at all."

According to Dozier: "Jose Ferrer was my first choice for the Joker. He either didn't want to do it or couldn't. He has kicked himself ever since. 'Butch' Romero, who I had known forever, was the second choice for the Joker, and I am not sure he did not turn out better than Jose. I am not sure that Jose would have captured the frivolity and the ludicrousness of the character. I think he may have taken himself a little too seriously as an actor to do that."

Burt Ward, who played Robin, recalled: "Cesar was Mr. Professionalism and never missed a line or made a mistake…not even once! His Joker laugh became world famous. I can't tell you how many kids (and I am embarrassed to say how many adults) came up to me at personal appearances and taunted me by impersonating Cesar's laugh! Cesar was a great asset to our show."

Yvonne Craig, who would later work with Cesar in Batman, also worked with him in 1961's "Seven Women from Hell." As she tells it: "I was suddenly overwhelmed by the cloyingly sweet smell of gardenias. Without turning around I said, 'Ugh, can you believe we're going to spend three weeks surrounded by the odor of rotting gardenias?' I turned around to meet Cesar Romero whose 'signature' cologne was something called Jungle Gardenia! If he made the connection between this fact and my comment, he never let on."

In the "Batman" movie, former Miss America Lee Meriwether won the role of Catwoman. "Cesar was the one who took me under his wing when I came on the set," she recalled. "He welcomed me, and he said, 'Don't worry, you'll do fine. Let me help you, and if there is anything I could do to help you, just let me kow.' So, in the actual filming, he would position me into place, because I was wearing a mask. My field of vision was almost tunnel. So, I missed my mark a couple of times, and he just eased me and pushed me right to theplace where we were supposed to end up. He was right there and always wonderful."

At the age of 78, Romero was cast as Jane Wyman's love interest in the top-rated prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest, playing Peter Stavros from 1985—1987.

Romero died on New Year's Day 1994 from bronchitis and pneumonia. Yvonne Craig recalled being surprised at his death. "He had been out and about town dancing the night away only the week before. He loved life and got the most out of it!"

His laugh will eternally remain in the ears of those who caught his portrayal of the Joker. You are missed, Uncle Butch!

See more vintage Hollywood Movie and TV photos on my main website.

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K. Martinez said...

Cesar Romero was so cool as the Joker. I also enjoyed his earlier films like "Week-End in Havanna" and "Captain from Castile".

beachgal said...

I am missing what the pun would be for the character name of Ram Dass you wrote of - that was a common given name in India (pronounced ROM Dass - not RAM like a sheep) - plus I am a young adult by the mid 60s and very influenced by Indian spiritual teachings that grew in huge popularity around that time - one of the better known San Francisco based teachers was 'Babba' Ram Dass - he wrote quite a significant book in the early 70s titled "Be Here Now.' Maybe it's just the difference between when we grew up?

Despite I was in college when TV Batman was on, it was quite popular that first season even in the college crowd - it was so 'camp' it was cool - everyone adopted using some of the 'Batman speak' in their vocabs of the day - POW! SPLAT! ZONK!- it faded fast however from the age group I was in (didn't even make it to the end of that first season) - we were into to flower child days with Monterey Pop right around the corner.

Dave DeCaro said...

Hi Beachgal - I am sure you are correct on the proper pronunciation of the Indian name Ram Dass, but the people at Fox did not pass that information on to Shirley or the other actors/actresses, as his name in the film is clearly pronounced as "Ram" and not "Rom."

JG said...

ZOWIE. My mom loved Cesar Romero.

Thanks for all the great behind-the-scenes.


beachgal said...

I don't' remember The Little Princess well - I do remember Wee Willie Winkie however - it was my fav Shirley movie.

I just got a flash on another common Batman'ism' we used after the TV series started -- 'Meet ya back at the Batcave! That of course was slang for our 'pad!' I think kids used that one generations beyond mine!