Friday, April 22, 2011

HOLA Legends: Juano Hernández

Juano Hernández, sometimes spelled as Huano Hernández (July 19, 1896? – July 17, 1970) was a Puerto Rican-born stage and film actor who is considered a pioneer for African-American actors and paved the way for them to perform serious dramatic roles in mainstream Hollywood movies.

He was born Juan G. Hernández Chávez in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1896 (some sources say it was Ponce in 1901). With no formal education, he worked as a sailor and settled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was hired by a circus and become an entertainer, making his first appearance as an acrobat in Rio de Janeiro in 1922. He later lived in the Caribbean and made his living as a professional boxer, fighting under the name Kid Curley.

In New York City, he worked in vaudeville and minstrel shows, sang in a church choir and was a radio script writer. During his spare time he perfected his diction by studying Shakespeare thus enabling himself to work in the radio. He co-starred in radio's first all-black soap opera "We Love and Learn." He also acted in the following soap operas: "Mandrake the Magician" (opposite Raymond Edward Johnson and Jessica Tandy), "The Shadow," "Tennessee Jed" and "Against the Storm." He became a household name after his participation in "The Cavalcade of America," a series which promoted American history and inventiveness. He appeared in seven Broadway shows, including Strange Fruit and Set My People Free.

He appeared in 23 films throughout his career. His first films were small roles in films produced by Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African American filmmaker who made films for black audiences. His film debut was a Micheaux film, The Girl from Chicago (1932), in which he was cast as a Cuban racketeer.

In 1949, he acted in his first mainstream film, based on William Faulkner's novel, Intruder in the Dust, in which he played the role of Lucas Beauchamp, a poor Southern sharecropper unjustly accused of murder. The film earned him a Golden Globe nomination for "New Star of the Year". The film was listed as one of the ten best of the year by the New York Times. Faulkner said of the film, "I'm not much of a moviegoer, but I did see that one. I thought it was a fine job. That Juano Hernández is a fine actor-- and man, too."

Film historian Donald Bogle said that Intruder in the Dust broke new ground in the cinematic portrayal of blacks, and Hernández's "performance and extraordinary presence still rank above that of almost any other black actor to appear in an American movie."

In the 1950 western Stars In My Crown, directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Joel McCrea, he played a freed slave who refuses to sell his land and faces an angry lynch mob. He was was singled out for praise for his performance in the 1950 film The Breaking Point with John Garfield. The New York Times called his performance "quietly magnificent."

He also received favorable notices for his performances in Trial (1955), about a politically charged court case, in which he played the judge, and Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1965).
He played Rev. Charles Handy, W.C. Handy's father in the film St. Louis Blues (starring Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey). Other film credits include Lying Lips, The Breaking Point, Kiss Me Deadly, Ransom!, and the John Ford-helmed Sergeant Rutledge. He also made several notable television guest appearances, including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Naked City," "The Defenders," "The Dick Powell Show" and "Studio One."

He returned to Puerto Rico late in his life. In the last two years of his life he appeared in three films, The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) with David Niven, The Reivers (1969) with Steve McQueen, and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier.

He died in San Juan on July 17, 1970 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was laid to rest at Cementerio Buxeda Memorial Park, Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.

The Oscar Micheaux-directed film Lying Lips (his name is misspelled in the credits as "Jauno Hernandez")

Puerto Rican newsreel about Juano Hernández in Puerto Rico

Legendary Puerto Rican actor Jacobo Morales talks about Juano Hernández

Trailer for the 1949 film Intruder in the Dust, based on the William Faulkner novel (Warning: Strong language, including a racial epithet, is mentioned in the trailer)

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