Success and Survival
The first major biography of the Puerto Rican director and Tony- and Oscar-winning actor
José Ferrer (1912–1992) became the first Puerto Rican actor to win the Best Actor Academy Award for the 1950 film version of Cyrano de Bergerac. His iconic portrayal of the lovelorn poet/swordsman had already won him the Tony in 1947, and he would be identified with Cyrano for the rest of his life. Ferrer was a theatrical dynamo with limitless energy; in 1952 he directed Stalag 17, The Fourposter, and The Shrike (which he starred in) on Broadway, while New York City movie marquees were heralding his appearance in Anything Can Happen.
At his apex in the 1950s, Ferrer was in constant demand both in theater and movies. He capitalized on his Oscar with such triumphs as Moulin Rouge and The Caine Mutiny. Not content with merely acting, Ferrer soon became a force behind the camera, acting and directing such critically well-received films as The Shrike and The Great Man. Success proved difficult to sustain. In the late 1950s, such ambitious theatrical productions as Edwin Booth and Juno were critical and commercial flops, while film studios also lost their patience with him. By the mid-1960s, Ferrer took whatever roles he could get in films, television, or regional theater.
In addition, Ferrer had a turbulent personal life. His first marriage to actress Uta Hagen ended in divorce and scandal. His personal and professional relationship with his Othello costar Paul Robeson landed Ferrer before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ferrer’s marriage to actress/dancer Phyllis Hill was marred by his infidelity, while his initial wedded bliss with singer Rosemary Clooney eroded as his career began to ebb while hers started to peak. In spite of everything, Ferrer managed to endure and was working practically right up to his death. Ferrer maintained his pride in his Puerto Rican heritage, donating his Oscar to the University of Puerto Rico while championing the work of Latino poets and playwrights. He continuously evolved, striving to remain relevant, stretching his talents (including cabaret, operas, musicals, and yes, ballet!), and writing the occasional guest column for major newspapers. Ferrer’s life is an American success story and a testament to reinvention and resilience.
No one else has examined Ferrer’s career with such close attention, judiciously praising his successes and explaining his failures. Peros has recovered a great personality and artist. This biography comes at a welcome time when we need precisely this story about a man who remained faithful to his roots and made a success of himself in mainstream American culture.- Carl Rollyson, author of many biographies including A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews; and Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Revised and Updated
Mike Peros’s José Ferrer: Success and Survival explores the brilliant, mercurial, and protean actor and director with astonishing honesty, clarity, and attention to detail. Based upon careful scholarship, new sources, and a love for his subject, Peros unmasks the many facets of Ferrer’s uncanny rise in American theater and film, doing great tribute to Ferrer’s Puerto Rican roots while celebrating a great American actor. Unique in his ability to adapt to the landscape of American theater and film, Ferrer’s personal story—particularly his stormy relationships with stars such as Uta Hagen, Paul Robeson, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Webster, and others and the challenges arising from his blacklisting in the 1950s—makes this book an enormously satisfying read. For those who don’t know Ferrer’s work, Peros’s masterful storytelling inspires his readers to seek out Ferrer’s brilliant and iconic roles in film such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, and Barney Greenwald in The Caine Mutiny, as well as his memorable turns as a director of films such as The Shrike and plays such as The Fourposter and Stalag 17. In an age when performers of color are just now finding more representation on the stage and in film, Peros’s biography provides insight into Ferrer’s success and, yes, survival as the first major Latinx theatrical and film star in the US—this book should be on the reading list of scholars entering the field.- David A. Crespy, professor of playwriting, acting, dramatic literature, and theater history, University of Missouri