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E. Ramirez Alonso, 90; actor and innovative producer of telenovelas

August 08, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- Ernesto Ramirez Alonso, who worked as an actor with some of Mexico's leading film talent and later earned the sobriquet "Mr. Telenovela" for directing and producing the popular soap operas that became a cash cow for the country's giant Televisa network, died Tuesday at his home here. He was 90.

Tina Galindo, a friend and theater producer, said in an interview that the cause was complications from pneumonia.

"Mexican television lost one of the best producers it has had, but he left us a great legacy as a producer, as an actor and as a friend," Galindo said. "He brought to success many actors and stamped a phase in Mexican television."

As an actor Alonso cut a dashing figure on screen and worked with such accomplished directors as Emilio "Indio" Fernandez, Julio Bracho and the Spaniard Luis Buñuel during the years Buñuel spent in exile in Mexico. Both on and off camera, Alonso squired around Maria Felix, one of Mexico's great beauties and one of the country's most popular leading ladies.

But it was in the then-new and unproven medium of television, which Alonso entered in the late 1950s, that he arguably made his greatest mark as an entertainer. He not only produced and directed at least 20 telenovelas but also introduced such innovations to the genre as setting them in historic eras and basing them on the romantic lives of historical figures.

"The telenovela is nothing new," Alonso observed in a 1998 interview with the Mexican magazine Siempre. "If you see Balzac, Victor Hugo, they wrote by chapters, they [dealt] with the same problems: love, hate, jealousy, intrigue, passion, crime. The problems are the same. What's going to be changing is the world."

Alonso was born Feb. 28, 1917, in the central state of Aguascalientes. He landed his first movie roles in the late 1930s and proceeded to work steadily as an actor through the '40s and '50s in dramas, melodramas and comedies.

At Bracho's suggestion, he changed his last name from his paternal surname of Ramirez to Alonso, his mother's surname. With his new name he became famous, working with stars of the caliber of Felix and Jorge Negrete.

Of his lifelong friendship with Felix, whom he met in 1940, Alonso once said: "There was such an affinity between us that there never was any difficulty. There was affection or understanding, love of friends, of siblings."

He made three films with Buñuel: The first was the 1950 masterpiece "Los Olvidados" (The Forgotten), a study of social pathology among the urban poor in the rapidly modernizing Mexico City of the post-World War II epoch, for which Alonso provided the opening voice-over narration. The other two were "Abismos de Pasion" (1953), a Mexicanized, loose adaptation of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"; and "Ensayo de un Crimen" or "The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz," a 1955 black comedy about a mentally unstable would-be serial killer.

Alonso decided to make the jump into TV in 1959 at the invitation of Televisa impresario Emilio Azcarraga. "He told me that as an actor I wasn't going to last for all my life, but as a producer, yes," Alonso recalled years later.

Alvaro Cueva, a television critic, said in an interview that Alonso's entry into television opened the doors to many other movie stars. "Furthermore, Don Ernesto Alonso made the great technical contributions to telenovelas and, what's more, discovered personalities like Angelica Maria," among others, as well as a new generation of young writers, Cueva said.

Alonso's first soap opera was "La Casa del Odio" (The House of Hate) in 1960. Among his biggest TV hits were "Senda de Gloria" (The Path of Glory) and "El Maleficio" (The Curse). Another of his telenovelas focused on the emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, who reigned briefly over Mexico during the French occupation of the 1860s.

"Millions of Mexicans know the history of our country not by books, not by school; they know it because they saw it in the telenovelas of Don Ernesto Alonso," Cueva said.

Alonso is survived by a son, a daughter and eight grandchildren.

Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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