José Ramón Gil Samaniego
February 6, 1899
|Died||October 30, 1968 (aged 69)|
|Cause of death||Asphyxiation (murdered)|
|Resting place||Calvary Cemetery|
|Relatives||Dolores del Río (cousin)|
Andrea Palma (cousin)
Julio Bracho (cousin)
|Awards||Hollywood Walk of Fame (Motion Picture)|
José Ramón Gil Samaniego (February 6, 1899 – October 30, 1968), known professionally as Ramon Novarro, was a Mexican-American film, stage and television actor who began his career in silent films in 1917 and eventually became a leading man and one of the top box office attractions of the 1920s and early 1930s. Novarro was promoted by MGM as a "Latin lover" and became known as a sex symbol after the death of Rudolph Valentino.
Novarro was born José Ramón Gil Samaniego on February 6, 1899, in Durango City, Durango, north-west Mexico, to Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, and his wife, Leonor (Pérez Gavilán). The family moved to Los Angeles to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. Novarro's direct ancestors came from the Castilian town of Burgos, whence two brothers emigrated to the New World in the seventeenth century.
Allan Ellenberger, Novarro's biographer, writes:
The Samaniegos were an influential and well-respected family in Mexico. Many Samaniegos had prominent positions in the affairs of state and were held in high esteem by the president. Ramon's grandfather, Mariano Samaniego, was a well-known physician in Juarez. Known as a charitable and outgoing man, he was once an interim governor for the State of Chihuahua and was the first city councilman of El Paso, Texas.... Ramon's father, Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, was born in Juarez and attended high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. After receiving his degree in dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Durango, Mexico, and began a flourishing dental practice. In 1891 he married Leonor Pérez-Gavilán, the beautiful daughter of a prosperous landowner. The Pérez-Gaviláns were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood, and according to local legend, they were descended from Guerrero, a prince of Montezuma.
The family estate was called the "Garden of Eden". Thirteen children were born there: Emilio; Guadalupe; Rosa; Ramón; Leonor; Mariano; Luz; Antonio; José; a stillborn child; Carmen; Ángel and Eduardo. At the time of the Mexican Revolution, the family moved from Durango to Mexico City and then returned to Durango. Three of Ramón's sisters, Guadalupe, Rosa, and Leonor, became nuns. He was a second cousin of the Mexican actresses Dolores del Río and Andrea Palma.
He entered films in 1917, in bit parts. He supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, actor and director Rex Ingram and his wife, actress Alice Terry, began to promote him as a rival to Rudolph Valentino, and Ingram suggested he change his name to "Novarro". From 1923, he began to play more prominent roles. His role in Scaramouche (1923) brought him his first major success.
Novarro achieved his greatest success in 1925, in Ben-Hur. His revealing costumes caused a sensation. He was elevated into the Hollywood elite. As did many stars, Novarro engaged Sylvia of Hollywood as a physical therapist (although in her tell-all book, Sylvia erroneously claimed that Novarro slept in a coffin). With Valentino's death in 1926, Novarro became the screen's leading Latin actor, though ranked lower than his MGM contemporary John Gilbert as a leading man. Novarro was popular as a swashbuckler in action roles, and considered one of the great romantic lead actors of his day. He appeared with Norma Shearer in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore (1928).
He made his first talking film, starring as a singing French soldier, in Devil-May-Care (1929). He starred with Dorothy Janis in The Pagan (1929), with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), with Myrna Loy in The Barbarian (1933) and opposite Lupe Vélez in Laughing Boy (1934).
When his contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935 and the studio did not renew it, Novarro continued to act sporadically, appearing in films for Republic Pictures, a Mexican religious drama, and a French comedy. In the 1940s, he had several small roles in American films, including We Were Strangers (1949), directed by John Huston and starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield. In 1958, he was considered for a role in the television series The Green Peacock, with Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, after their CBS Television sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve (1957–58). The project, however, never materialized. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s. Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in NBC's The High Chaparral as late as 1968.
At the peak of his success in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Novarro was earning more than US$100,000 per film. He invested some of his income in real estate, and his Hollywood Hills residence is one of the more renowned designs (1927) by Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. When his career ended, he was still able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Novarro was troubled all his life by his conflicted feelings toward his Roman Catholic religion and his homosexuality. His life-long struggle with alcoholism is often traced to these problems. In the early 1920s Novarro had a romantic relationship with composer Harry Partch, who was working as an usher at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time, but Novarro broke off the affair as he achieved greater success as an actor. He was romantically involved with Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe, who was also his publicist in the late 1920s, and with a wealthy man from San Francisco, Noël Sullivan.
Along with Dolores del Río, Lupe Vélez and James Cagney, Novarro was accused of promoting communism in California after they attended a special screening of the film ¡Que viva México! by famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.
Novarro was murdered on October 30, 1968, by brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson, aged 22 and 17, who called him and offered their sexual services. He had in the past hired prostitutes from an agency to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex, and the Fergusons obtained Novarro's telephone number from a previous guest.
According to the prosecution in the murder case, the two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden in Novarro's house. The prosecution accused the brothers of torturing Novarro for several hours to force him to reveal where the non-existent money was hidden. They left the house with $20 they took from his bathrobe pocket. Novarro died as a result of asphyxiation, having choked to death on his own blood after being beaten. The two perpetrators were caught and sentenced to long prison terms, but released on parole in the mid-1970s. Both were later re-arrested for unrelated crimes for which they served longer prison terms than for the murder of Novarro. In a 1998 interview, Paul Ferguson finally assumed the blame for Novarro's death. Tom Ferguson committed suicide on March 6, 2005. When Paul Ferguson died in 2018, he was serving a 60-year sentence for rape in Missouri.
In popular culture
Novarro's murder served as the basis for the short story by Charles Bukowski called "The Murder of Ramon Vasquez", as well as for the song "Tango," by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, recorded by Peggy Lee on her Mirrors album.
In late 2005, the Wings Theatre in New York City staged the world premiere of Through a Naked Lens by George Barthel. The play combined fact and fiction to depict Ramon Novarro's rise to fame and his relationship with Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe.
Novarro's relationship with Herbert Howe is discussed in two biographies: Allan R. Ellenberger's Ramón Novarro and André Soares's Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramón Novarro.
|1916||Joan the Woman||Starving Peasant||Uncredited|
|1917||The Jaguar's Claws||Bandit||Uncredited|
|1917||The Little American||Wounded Soldier||Uncredited|
|1917||The Woman God Forgot||Aztec man||Uncredited|
|1921||A Small Town Idol||Dancer||as Ramón Samaniego|
|1921||The Concert||Dancing shepherd||Uncredited, lost film|
|1921||The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse||Guest at Ball (extra)||Uncredited|
|1922||Mr. Barnes of New York||Antonio||as Ramon Samaniego|
|1922||The Prisoner of Zenda||Rupert of Hentzau||as Ramon Samaniegos|
|1922||Trifling Women||Henri / Ivan de Maupin||Lost film|
|1923||Where the Pavement Ends||Motauri||Lost film|
|1923||Scaramouche||André-Louis Moreau, Quintin's Godson|
|1924||Thy Name Is Woman||Juan Ricardo|
|1924||The Arab||Jamil Abdullah Azam|
|1924||The Red Lily||Jean Leonnec|
|1925||A Lover's Oath||Ben Ali||*lost; but A.M.P.A.S. has 25 feet of this film|
|1925||The Midshipman||Dick Randall|
|1925||Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ||Judah Ben-Hur|
|1927||The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg||Crown Prince Karl Heinrich|
|1927||The Road to Romance||José Armando||Lost film|
|1928||Across to Singapore||Joel Shore|
|1928||A Certain Young Man||Lord Gerald Brinsley||Lost film|
|1928||Forbidden Hours||His Majesty, Michael IV|
|1929||The Flying Fleet||Ens. / Ltjg Tommy Winslow|
|1929||The Pagan||Henry Shoesmith, Jr.|
|1929||Devil-May-Care||Armand de Treville|
|1930||In Gay Madrid||Ricardo|
|1930||The March of Time||Himself||Unfinished film|
|1930||Call of the Flesh||Juan de Dios|
|1930||Sevilla de mis amores||Juan de Dios Carbajal||Spanish version of Call of the Flesh|
|1931||Le chanteur de Séville||Juan||French version of Call of the Flesh|
|1931||Son of India||Karim|
|1931||Mata Hari||Lt. Alexis Rosanoff|
|1931||Wir schalten um auf Hollywood||Himself|
|1932||Huddle||Antonio "Tony" Amatto|
|1932||The Son-Daughter||Tom Lee / Prince Chun|
|1933||The Barbarian||Jamil El Shehab|
|1934||The Cat and the Fiddle||Victor Florescu|
|1934||Laughing Boy||Laughing Boy|
|1935||The Night Is Young||Archduke Paul "Gustl" Gustave|
|1936||Against the Current||Director, writer|
|1937||The Sheik Steps Out||Ahmed Ben Nesib|
|1938||A Desperate Adventure||André Friezan||Alternative title: It Happened in Paris|
|1940||La Comédie du bonheur||Félix|
|1940||Ecco la felicità||Felice Ciatti||Italian version of La comédie du bonheur|
|1942||The Saint Who Forged a Country||Juan Diego|
|1949||We Were Strangers||Chief|
|1949||The Big Steal||Inspector General Ortega|
|1950||The Outriders||Don Antonio Chaves|
|1960||Heller in Pink Tights||De Leon|
|1958||Disney's Wonderful World||Don Esteban Miranda||2 episodes|
|1962||Thriller||Maestro Giuliano||Episode: "La Strega"|
|1964||Dr. Kildare||Gaspero Paolini||3 episodes|
Count De Roy
|2 episodes "Silver Service" & "Finest Hour"|
|1965||Bonanza||Jose Ortega||Episode: "The Brass Box"|
|1967||The Wild Wild West||Don Tomas||Episode: "The Night of the Assassin"|
|1968||The High Chaparral||Padre Guillermo||Episode: "A Joyful Noise", (final appearance)|
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- Soares, André. Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. Retrieved February 7, 2020.
- Ellenberger, Allan R. (2009). Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899–1968; with a Filmography. McFarland. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-7864-4676-6.
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Ramon Novarro, the Mexican-born star of scores of Hollywood movies made in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, was found bludgeoned to death in his $125,000 Hollywood Hills home early this morning.
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- Ellenberger 2009, p. 196
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- Soares, André (1999). Beyond Paradise: A Biography of Ramón Novarro. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-60473-457-7.
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