CHICAGO — When Raul Julia sings "The Impossible Dream" in the new, Broadway-bound production of "Man of La Mancha," he seems ready to seize the mantle of idealist of the 1990s.
This is, after all, the man who can also be seen as the ghoulish but indefatigable Gomez in the just-released movie "The Addams Family," and who played the noble but naive Othello in this summer's New York Shakespeare Festival.
And when Julia speaks of the Hunger Project, which the Puerto Rican actor has been involved with for the past 14 years, his trademark brown, gleaming eyes practically burst out of their sockets.
"We have everything that's needed to end hunger on the planet by the year 2000," Julia, his voice hoarse from a November cold, says in his backstage dressing room at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, where "Man of La Mancha" opened before going to Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre. (Previews begin Tuesday, and opening night is Dec. 5.)
"We have to wake up and end this--otherwise we're going to go down in history as the generation of schmucks, the most unconscious generation in the history of the world."
Julia, 47, is not always wearing the crusader's cap, but his level of commitment and intensity projected from the stage, screen and in person is consistent. In a profession that encourages pigeonholing, Julia seems to be everywhere doing everything. Perhaps you can expect no less diversity from someone who cites Joseph Papp, Werner Erhard and Orson Bean as major influences.
His encounter with Bean, a stage actor who became most widely known for his appearance on television game shows, occurred when Julia was still a college student. "Orson Bean was on vacation in Puerto Rico, and I was doing a variety show," says Julia, his 6-foot-2 frame relaxed in an armchair. "He saw me and liked my performance and invited me to have a drink. I told him that once I graduated, I wanted to make it a career, and I was going to go to Europe. He said, 'I think you should come visit me in New York first. I think New York will be better for you than Europe.' "
Julia visited New York for a week and scuttled his plans to move to Italy. "I saw plays on Broadway, I saw the theaters, and I said, 'My God, you can actually make a living,' " he recalls. "I just immediately started fantasizing about going every day to one of those theaters in New York and doing my play and going home. For the rest of my life, I would have been happy doing that."
At age 20, after returning home to finish college, Julia moved to New York, where Bean introduced him to noted acting teacher Wynn Handman. More than 25 years later, Julia has compiled a New York stage resume that seems endless.
The name that pops up most often is Joseph Papp, the innovative producer-director and New York Shakespeare Festival founder who died Oct. 31. Julia first hooked up with Papp more than 20 years ago to play Macduff in a Spanish-language production of "Macbeth" that traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood in a truck.
"The great thing about (Papp) was he believed in free theater," Julia says. "People thought he was crazy, but he kept pushing and pushing. He was bringing theater to people who had never seen theater in their lives. That's one of his many incredible contributions, his openness to experimentation and not being afraid to fail.
"I admired that in Joe Papp, and I emulate that," he adds. "That inspires me to choose work in that way, not play it safe."
Julia's credits back up his convictions. He has received four Tony nominations for his stage work in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Threepenny Opera," "Where's Charley?" and "Nine." And in the last two years he has starred in "Macbeth" and "Othello" for the New York Shakespeare Festival.
His film career began slowly, with parts in "The Organization Man" and "The Panic in Needle Park" (both 1971), but picked up in the 1980s with featured roles in Paul Mazursky's "Tempest" and Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart" (both 1982), and his breakthrough portrayal of a Marxist revolutionary in Hector Babenco's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985).
Since then the roles have come nonstop, including "Tequila Sunrise," "Moon Over Parador," "Presumed Innocent" and "Havana." Luis Puenzo's film version of Albert Camus' "The Plague," starring Julia as Cottard, is awaiting release.
Not all of his films have been critical or box-office successes, but Julia doesn't consider any of them failures. "Sometimes I make a movie that I see possibilities in, and the script might not be perfect," he said. "If I waited for a perfect script, I would hardly ever work. Like 'The Addams Family,' for example. It wasn't a perfect script when I read it, but through rehearsal we improved it."