Juliá was born in Floral Park, a subsector of San Juan, to Olga Arcelay and Raúl Juliá. He was the oldest of four brothers and sisters. His mother was a mezzo-soprano who sang at a church choir before marrying Juliá’s father, who was an electrical engineer graduated from Tri-State University. Some relatives were also musicians, including his great aunt María González, whom he credited as the inspiration behind his artistic career. The family was Catholic. Raúl’s father was the founder of “La Cueva del Chicken Inn”, a restaurant in San Juan. The building was originally a gas station and body shop, before being remodeled after a similar restaurant in Madrid, Spain, called “Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas”, which is intended to mimic the structure of a gypsum cave. Juliá’s father claimed that he brought pizza to Puerto Rico, after he hired an Italian cook in New York City that could prepare pizza. The restaurant is also supposed to be the first to distribute chicken-in-a-basket within the archipelago, which Miriam Fitts helped him think of. Since the beginning of his primary education, Juliá was enrolled in Colegio Espíritu Santo in Hato Rey, a Catholic private school, where most of the personnel spoke exclusively English. There he participated in his first play in first grade, interpreting the devil, with his performance earning him participation in all subsequent school plays. After witnessing Errol Flynn’s performance in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he decided to pursue an acting career. During his childhood, Juliá’s family followed a strict Jesuit practice, often bringing homeless children into their household. His mother received a recognition from the Catholic University of Ponce due to these efforts. When he was in seventh grade, Juliá was able to speak English fluently and had gained interest in the works of William Shakespeare. Juliá concluded his secondary education at Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, where he would organize plays of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest. Seeking to please his parents, he continued his university education spending a year at Fordham University, before returning to Puerto Rico, where he attended the University of Puerto Rico, becoming a member of Phi Sigma Alpha Fraternity. Throughout this timeframe, Juliá continued acting in local plays and nightclubs. He studied liberal arts, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Juliá eventually realized that he had no interest in pursuing a law career, which was favored by his parents, choosing to act full-time despite having doubts if he could sustain his needs working as an actor.
Consequently, Juliá began performing in several plays that were held in San Juan. He performed in a recount of Macbeth, which was held in one of the municipality’s colonial castles in order to emulate the setting of the work. Other works included playing the role of Roderigo in Othello at a local drama production. Parallel to this, Juliá began making presentations at the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. After joining a musical group named the “Lamplighters”, despite receiving opposition from his parents, he was recruited by Lillian Hurst to perform alongside her, eventually receiving work at a hotel named El Convento. During this time, he began considering the possibility of moving to Europe to take acting classes. During one of their acts, Juliá was approached by Orson Bean, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico, who provided him with contact information, wanting him to travel to New York and work there. His parents were shocked by the proposal, but ultimately agreed to support his decision. Juliá’s departure was postponed after his younger brother, Rafael, died in a traffic collision. During this time, he became engaged to Magda Vassallo Molinelli.
In 1964, when he was 24 years old, he traveled to New York, arriving in the middle of a winter storm. After establishing residence in Manhattan, Juliá had to do several odd jobs to pay for his expenses, going as far as receiving training on the proper way to sell pens for a distributor. When Hurst visited him, both attended a Broadway play and the fact that he could work as an actor full-time surprised him. As a result of this, Juliá began seeking employment in both Broadway and “Off Broadway” plays. Seeking to further improve his acting, he received lessons from Wynn Handman, who was recommended by Bean. His first work was a reenactment of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, where he played Astolfo. This allowed him to receive the Actors Equity card from Actors’ Equity Association. Initially, Juliá received allowance from his parents, but after contracting Jeff Hunter as manager, he was able to perform in a staging of Bye Bye Birdie, declining further donations. He began performing with Phoebe Brand’s mobile theatre, presenting plays in poor areas of New York. In 1965, he married Vassallo Molinelli. In 1966, Juliá was cast for the role of Macduff in a Spanish version of Macbeth and performed in The Ox Cart, a stage play written by Puerto Rican play writer René Marqués. Miriam Colón Valle, who also participated in La Carreta, established the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, where he performed. In 1967, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), Joseph Papp, attended a performance at Delacorte Theater, where Juliá was reading patriotic Puerto Rican poetry. Subsequently, Papp offered him the role of Demetrius in a staging of Titus Andronicus. After this play concluded, he contacted Papp who offered him the job of stage manager in NYSF’s Hamlet. While performing this task, Juliá also performed in some of the plays.
In September 1968, after auditioning four times for the role, Juliá debuted in his first Broadway play, performing as Chan in a staging of The Cuban Thing. The following year he received a role in a reenactment of Arthur Kopit’s Indians. During this timeframe, he divorced from Vasallo Molinelli. In 1970, Juliá received the role of Paco Montoya in The Castro Complex, receiving favorable reviews for his performance. While rehearsing for an Off Broadway play, he met Merel Poloway, forming a relationship with her. As he gained notoriety in Broadway, Juliá received roles in two television series, Love of Life and Sesame Street. He disliked the role given to him in Love of Life and only appeared on the show for a brief time. His Sesame Street character, Rafael the Fixit Man, was a recurring character during the show’s third season, running the Fix-It Shop with Emilio Delgado’s character Luis, who debuted with Juliá on the show. Between 1971 and 1972, Juliá received roles in The Organization, The Panic in Needle Park, and a film adaptation of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. While working in Sesame Street, Papp contacted him and offered the role of Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. For his performance in this play, Juliá received his first nomination for a Tony Award and won the 1972 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. In 1973, he interpreted Edmund in King Lear. This was followed by the role of Orlando in As You Like It. Juliá noted that he cherished the roles played during these Shakespearian plays, particularly the rhythm, music, and poetry present in them. He also acted in Via Galactica’s limited presentation in Broadway and, in television, played Dr. Greg Robinson, Jerry’s brother, in the “Oh, Brother” episode of The Bob Newhart Show. In 1974, he was cast in the lead role of Where’s Charley?, playing Charley Wykeham. Juliá received his second Tony Award for his performance in this comedy. He subsequently joined Erhard Seminars Training or “est”, an organization that promotes self-motivation, by participating in its seminars. In 1976, Juliá played Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera, interpreting the dialogue with a marked British accent. The performance earned him a third Tony Award nomination. He followed this performance with a turn as Italian car racer Franco Bertollini in The Gumball Rally.
That same year Juliá married Poloway in the Catskill Mountains. The ceremony was led by Swami Muktananda as part of a spiritual retreat. The couple had met the Swami through Werner Erhard, founder of “est”. After this retreat, Erhard founded “The Hunger Project”, claiming that after traveling to India, he felt motivated to found a non-profit organization to eliminate world hunger through philanthropic galas. Juliá joined the initiative since its conception, establishing a personal goal of raising one million dollars for the organization. In 1978, he accepted the lead role in Dracula, receiving a good reception for his interpretation of the character. While performing as Dracula, Juliá also played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. The interaction with co-star Meryl Streep was tense at first, before developing into a friendship as the production advanced. Juliá then accepted a role in a film adaptation of The Tempest, spending several months in Italy while exploring its culture. While in the country, he received the script of Nine for which he received his fourth Tony Award nomination. In preparation for his role in Betrayal, Juliá moved to London temporarily, hiring a coach to adapt his accent to the English dialect.
In 1982, Juliá played Calibanos in Mazursky’s Tempest and Ray in the musical One from the Heart. In 1983, his first son, Raúl Sigmund Juliá was born. That year he also starred in the public television film Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, which received a weak reception and was satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. After not appearing in a film for two years, Juliá played a political prisoner named Valentín in an adaptation of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Considering that the script was unique, he agreed to begin filming before receiving his salary and traveled to South America, where he interviewed rebels and ex-prisoners to familiarize himself with their experiences and ideology. Upon its release, the film was a commercial success. For his performance, Juliá received a nomination for the Golden Globe Award and won the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures’ award for best actor along with co-lead actor William Hurt. The following year, he appeared in his first Puerto Rican film, La Gran Fiesta, offering a monologue near the end of the film. In 1985, he starred as Major Sergius Saranoff in an adaptation of Arms and the Man. This was followed by the role of David Suárez in the romantic comedy Compromising Positions. In 1986, Juliá played a hairdresser named Joaquin Manero in The Morning After. To prepare for the role, he took lessons and worked at a hair salon for some time.
In 1987, Juliá had the lead role in The Penitent. Later on that year, his second son, Benjamín Rafael Juliá, was born. In 1988, Juliá played a corrupt official in Moon over Parador, which received negative reviews from critics. The following year, he co-starred with Anthony Quinn in Onassis: The Richest Man in the World, a biographic film covering the life of Aristotle Onassis. In 1989, Juliá was cast as Archbishop Óscar Romero in the biographical movie, Romero. During his life, Romero had been an advocate of civil rights, often denouncing violations of these rights in public, which prompted his assassination during a mass. Juliá accepted the role based on its political nature, seeking to draw attention to the issues in that Central American region. To prepare for the role, he read Romero’s diary and autobiography as well as listening to or watching recordings of his messages and Masses, which prompted him to rejoin the Catholic Church. He and Poloway, who is Jewish, decided not to raise their children in a particular religion, believing that they should make their own decision after growing older. The government of El Salvador refused to allow distribution of the film because of its content, so that the film received only clandestine circulation. Due to his activity between 1987 and 1989, Juliá was ranked first in Variety’s “List of Busiest Hollywood Actors”. Julia then starred in the film adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, recreating the role of Macheath in the movie, which was renamed Mack the Knife for its American release.
In 1990, he was cast to play a lawyer in Presumed Innocent, receiving solid reviews for his performance. Prior to the filming, Juliá spent time in court rooms and studied the court system. In 1991, when Papp died, Juliá commented that the director was directly responsible for finding him roles besides that of “stereotypical Latinos” such as that of the “Latin lover”. Juliá was cast to play Gomez Addams in an adaptation of The Addams Family. He was attracted to the role because of the character’s irreverent portrayal, noting that “even his depressions are wonderful.” Since his earlier recollections of the role were those from the Spanish-dubbed version of the first television series, he had to adapt the role directly from the original cartoons drawn by Charles Addams, receiving a nomination for a Saturn Award. In 1992, Juliá played the title role in Man of La Mancha with Sheena Easton, a Broadway adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The play had originally begun in 1965, with the main character being played, at one time, by one of his favorite actors, José Ferrer. Juliá performed this role eight times per week. Subsequently, he reprised his role as Gomez Addams in Addams Family Values. In 1994, Juliá played Chico Mendes in The Burning Season for HBO, for which he received solid reviews. He familiarized himself with the role by analyzing interviews and footage from Mendes’ Xapuri Rubber Tappers’ Union.
In early 1994, while filming The Burning Season in Mexico, Juliá contracted food poisoning after consuming sushi. Because he had undergone stomach surgery a few months earlier for an infection which was rumored to be stomach cancer, Juliá was airlifted to Los Angeles to receive medical attention. He recovered and returned to Mexico to finish the movie, but he lost several pounds and was physically weakened by his condition. Despite his poor health, he completed The Burning Season and was eager to continue his plans to play M. Bison in Street Fighter, which was to be filmed in Australia that spring. Juliá felt that this film would allow him to spend more time with his children, who were fans of the video game franchise and helped him prepare for the role. He received his second Saturn Award nomination for his performance, which was considered the high point of the otherwise poorly received movie. This would be his final role in a major film, with his last work being a supporting role in the TV drama Down Came a Blackbird, which was filmed in Toronto, Canada during September and October 1994. His poor health was clearly apparent in these last three films because of substantial weight loss.
On October 16, 1994, Juliá and Poloway attended the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. After the opera, he was supposed to meet Marcos Zurinaga, a Puerto Rican filmmaker who directed Juliá in the Argentine/Puerto Rican coproduction Tango Bar. Juliá began feeling intense abdominal pain and had to be taken by ambulance to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Long Island. He was initially not worried by the issue, reviewing the script for his intended role in Desperado from his hospital bed, but his condition worsened. Later that night, Juliá suffered an unexpected stroke. He fell into a coma on October 20, 1994 and was put on life support. Four days later, on October 24, 1994, Juliá died due to terminal complications from the stroke. In accordance with Juliá’s instructions, his body was transported to Puerto Rico. A state funeral was held in San Juan on October 27, 1994, with Juliá being escorted to the building of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, where a funeral ceremony was held. The service was attended by thousands of Puerto Ricans, with plena being played in the background. The burial ceremony was also attended by thousands, with La Borinqueña being sung by Lucecita Benítez prior to the procession. After stopping at San Ignacio de Loyola Church, the procession advanced to Buxeda Cemetery, where Rubén Berríos offered the final words. As Juliá’s coffin was lowered, a load of carnations was dropped from a helicopter while the crowd shouted ¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!. Juliá was a lifelong supporter of the Puerto Rican independence movement; on one occasion, he convinced his agent to allow him to do an advertising campaign on behalf of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
Subsequent memorial ceremonies were held at Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York and in Los Angeles, where several actors and personalities, including Rubén Blades and Edward James Olmos, expressed their grief. A church mass in Miami and numerous private ceremonies were also held. The staff of Universal Pictures paid homage to him by dedicating Street Fighter to his memory, adding the phrase “For Raúl. Vaya con Dios.” in the film’s ending credits. Juliá had been set to reprise his role as M. Bison in the video game version of the Street Fighter film, having already met with the production staff. The New York Shakespeare Festival paid to have an obituary in Variety, where his birth and death dates were accompanied by a Shakespearean quote. The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater established The Raúl Juliá Training Unit, giving free acting classes to young actors. For his performance in The Burning Season, Juliá was posthumously awarded a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Cable Ace Award, and an Emmy Award. Although he did not make his screen debut before 1950, Juliá was a nominee for the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. Actors such as Helen Hunt and Jimmy Smits have quoted him as a source of inspiration. On November 21, 1994, Rudy Giuliani declared that date “Raúl Juliá Day.” In 1996, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame on Broadway. The Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce created the Raúl Juliá Scholarship Fund in 1997, intended to provide college education for teenagers.
- March, 09, 1940
- San Juan, Puerto Rico
- October, 24, 1994
- Manhasset, New York
Cause of Death
- complications from stroke
- Buxeda Memorial Park
- San Juan, Puerto Rico