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Raul Julia; Actor Portrayed a Wide Array of Characters on Stage, Screen

October 25, 1994|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raul Julia, whose brooding, passionate features and multifarious talents enabled him to portray characters ranging from the ghoulish patriarch of "The Addams Family" to the persecuted political prisoner in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," died Monday.

The Puerto Rican-born actor--famous in his early years for his Shakespearean characterizations--was 54 and died at North Shore University Hospital in the Long Island community of Manhasset, N.Y., where he was taken after a stroke a week ago. He slipped into a coma Thursday and never regained consciousness.

He had been in good health, said his agent, Jeff Hunter, adding that the stroke "was totally unexpected."

Throughout his U.S. stage and film career (he came to the mainland from Puerto Rico in 1964) the urbane actor with the shrouded gray eyes and resonant voice remained a striking presence.

He starred in the New York Shakespeare Festival's "Macbeth" (1966) and "Othello" (1979) and opposite Meryl Streep in "The Taming of the Shrew" (1978).

He also starred with Harrison Ford in the film thriller "Presumed Innocent" as attorney Sandy Stern and opposite Faye Dunaway in "The Eyes of Laura Mars."

In one of his last appearances--a Home Box Office TV movie that was shown in September--Julia was the martyred Brazilian rain forest activist Chico Mendes.

He also was Don Quixote singing "The Impossible Dream" in a 1991 stage revival of "Man of La Mancha." He was nominated for four Tony Awards ("The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Threepenny Opera"--as Mack the Knife--"Where's Charley" and "Nine") and was the widely heralded Marxist revolutionary Valentin in Hector Babenco's film version of "Spider Woman."

The last was the major breakthrough in a film career that began with minor parts in "The Organization Man" and "Panic in Needle Park," both in 1971.

And then there was Gomez Addams, a role that Julia brought to film after John Astin played the part in a highly successful two-year TV series of the mid-1960s.

"The Addams Family" was about a macabre but tightly knit clan headed by Gomez, the evil-eyed husband and father with the murderous mentality. His wife was the beautifully ominous Morticia (Anjelica Huston in the film) and with butler Lurch and befuddled brother Fester they existed in a cartoon-celluloid world first created by Charles Addams in the New Yorker magazine.

Their motto was "We gladly feast on those who would subdue us."

The 1991 film produced a sequel--"Addams Family Values"--in 1993. In that picture Morticia bears a son, Pubert, who emerges complete with Gomez's mustache. Many found it funnier than its predecessor.

Julia's friends were as diverse as his characters.

They ranged from comedian Orson Bean to Joseph Papp, the innovative producer-director of the New York Shakespeare pageants with which Julia had a 16-year association, to Werner Erhard, founder of the mind-bending, self-improvement group est.

Papp, who died in 1991, once said of Julia: "He was always outrageous in his acting choices. He's larger than life all the time when he's on the stage. He doesn't mind falling flat on his face doing something dangerous."

Julia credited Bean, a stage actor later more closely associated with TV game shows, with sparking his interest in the American theater.

(Julia's first stage exposure--as the devil in a first-grade play--had been the start of his intrigue with acting.)

"I was in college appearing in a variety show and Orson was in Puerto Rico on vacation," Julia said. "He saw me and liked my performance. I told him that once I graduated I wanted to make acting my career and I was going to Europe."

Instead Bean invited Julia, at 6 feet, 2 inches an imposing presence, to New York, where he saw his first Broadway plays.

"I thought," Julia said in a 1991 interview, " 'My God, you can actually make a living. . . .' "

Julia's interests were also widespread. Foremost among them for the past 15 years had been the Hunger Project, a charity that grew out of his experiences with est.

The project's goal is to eradicate hunger by the year 2000, and Julia insisted that statements in its behalf be inserted into the programs that accompanied his stage performances.

Julia said his interest in the underfed needy began in Puerto Rico when his successful father--a restaurateur who reportedly introduced pizza to the island--and mother would take stray children into their home.

"When I found out in 1977 that we have the technology to end hunger on the planet, I had to get involved," he told the Washington Post in 1992. "As Don Quixote says in the play, 'Maddest of all is to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.' " Julia's other offstage efforts included the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors, which works to develop theater in Spanish.

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