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APPRECIATION : Raul Julia, a Talent Beyond Typecasting : From his beginnings on stage, the actor's elegance and versatility had impact.

October 25, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

To moviegoers, he was Gomez, the amorous husband in "The Addams Family," but to theatergoers, Raul Julia was Mack the Knife (at Lincoln Center in 1976); he was Guido Contini (the sexy Italian film director in the 1982 musical "Nine"); and, most vividly, he was a good-humored Petruchio to Meryl Streep's Kate in the 1978 Joseph Papp production of "Taming of the Shrew."

Julia, who died Monday in New York at age 54, was also one of the first Puerto Ricans to star on the Broadway stage, but his talent was such that he was hardly ever typecast (he played an Englishman on Broadway in 1980 in Harold Pinter's "Betrayal). And his looks were so thrilling that he even overshadowed the mesmerizing Frank Langella as the Dracula most women would have preferred to suck their blood when he went on tour with the 1977 play.

While he got a chance to mock his matinee idol image in "The Addams Family," Julia played it for real in the musical version of Fellini's "8 1/2," called "Nine," which had a book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. The star of the show was director Tommy Tune's stunning visual conceptions, which surrounded the star with 22 mostly gorgeous women on a black-and-white set.

Playing a film director in midlife crisis, Julia held the show together with his charisma, at full flower in 1982. Dressed in black, he rose at the start of the show to arrange the women in his life with a conductor's baton to the strains of a lush orchestral underscoring. He was a man making sense of the many passions he had felt, and he demonstrated a calm elegance and an unusual ability to be intense without being ponderous. It was a tremendously winning and confident portrayal.

In person he was a dedicated activist, working tirelessly for the Hunger Project since the late '70s. And his passion for acting was evident in the last months of his life. He lost 20 pounds to play the Brazilian rain-forest activist Chico Mendes in HBO's film "The Burning Season," got sick, and had to be airlifted out of the Mexican jungle where he was filming.

He may have felt a kinship with Mendes; he said in an interview last month, "He was just a regular guy, full of life and its enjoyment. . . . The film shows how a human being under the right circumstances has a choice, to make a difference beyond himself or to retreat."

It's safe to say that Raul Julia made a difference to any young Latino actor dreaming of the stage, because his dignified presence effectively banished any lingering "Bab-a-loo!" stereotyping. But he also radiated a great warmth and a straightforward modesty that, combined with his heavy-lidded grey eyes, translated into a powerful sexuality both on stage and on screen.

Theatergoers knew him first, during his formative years in the late '60s and early '70s, when he trained on the stages of Joseph Papp's Public Theater. And for theatergoers, it's those elusive images, gone as soon as they are experienced, that will remain the most vivid.

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