We may have a new Joker in ‘Suicide Squad’ but never forget the OG, Cesar Romero

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Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad is one of the most anticipated films of the summer blockbuster season. Much of the buzz surrounding this film has focused on Oscar winning actor Jared Leto, who was announced as the Joker almost two years ago. The choice of Leto was met with intrigue and praise. He’s proven himself a chameleon onscreen and with his background as an eccentric, as well as a rockstar (he’s the frontman of the band 30 Seconds to Mars), it would seem this role would be a perfect fit. The buzz has only magnified as stories surfaced of the actor sticking to the method on set only responding to others as the Joker and sending cast mates disturbing gifts.

I recently caught a television interview with Leto. The interviewer’s first question regarding his portrayal was about the Joker’s laugh. It’s an important asset to the character, he is the Joker after all. Leto is the latest actor to play the Joker and create his own spin on the infamous laugh. While there will always be passionate debates on who was the best actor for the job, the first person to bring that laugh to life and set a gold standard was Cuban American Cesar Romero.

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Cesar Romero with Shirley Temple in The Little Princess

Romero had a career that spanned more than 60 years. The ‘Latin from Manhattan’ dazzled audiences as a 20th Century Fox contract player appearing in films opposite the biggest stars of the day including Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Shirley Temple, Loretta Young, Maureen O’Hara, Sonja Henie, and countless others. Romero played just about any character. His filmography included the Indian Ram Das in Wee Willie Winkie, conquistador Hernan Cortez in Captain from Castille, a reformed crook who took on ‘The Rat Pack’ in Ocean’s 11, and of course, a string of the inevitable ‘Latin Lover’ roles. Romero’s lush body of work reveals a man who had the range.

When the studio system crumbled in the 1960s, Romero added class as an elder statesman in a slew of comedies and other films that were very different from the old Hollywood he was used to. His career could have easily declined but he found new life on television in the adaptation of the popular comic Batman. Batman was created to be very tongue in cheek. With flashy cinematography, ridiculous special effects and sounds, the studio didn’t have much faith in it. The goal was camp and guest stars such as established Hollywood stars Burgess Meredith and Julie Newmar were brought in to entice audiences. Romero was an unlikely choice but the man known for his class and sophistication had an absolute ball as the over-the-top Clown Prince of Crime.

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“You fall right into it. I thoroughly enjoyed playing the Joker,” he said in a later interview.

Romero relished the opportunity, hamming it up delivering those goofy lines such as “A joke a day keeps the gloom away.”

“Cesar Romero brought in an enormous amount of energy to the role. His piercing eyes, his laugh, I don’t know how he did it because he wasn’t 22 when he did it,” said Adam West, the man who played Batman, in the A&E Biography special on Romero. Romero was 55-years-old when he took on the role.

Batman became a cultural phenomenon and the Joker appeared on the show more than any other villain. He also appeared in the Batman movie. Romero is also credited for saving the character from obscurity.  The editor of DC Comics at the time hated the Joker and tried to get the character written out of the comics. But with the popularity of Romero’s Joker, the demand for the character grew.

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Romero in makeup on the set

In the 70s and 80s, the Joker and the Batman comics became darker. The Joker of my childhood is Jack Nicholson who I thought was so creepy yet also funny in Tim Burton’s Batman. Later came Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and Cameron Monagan in Gotham. Like Leto, Ledger also went to great depths to prepare for the role. It’s reported he was alone in a hotel room for several weeks to create the manic sociopathic character . But Romero didn’t go to an extreme length into the method when he became the Clown Prince. He famously refused to shave off his mustache so the makeup artist had to lather up the cake on his face. It’s very noticeable in both the series and the film but to me, it just adds to the fun.

Romero continued to work in television and film well into his 80’s. He had roles on a number of popular shows like Chico and the Man, Falcon Crest, and even a cameo on The Golden Girls. In any project he was a part of he brought his charm and signature gravitas. Yet despite his long and impressive career the Joker is what he’s best known for.

Romero’s Latino heritage should not be left out of the conversation when we talk about his significance as being the first Joker. I love that as the Joker, Romero could be just that. Although he added a personal touch of rolling his R’s, he wasn’t playing into some stereotype of eating tacos or speaking Spanglish, and at the time there was no outcry over him portraying the Joker like the negative response we saw from fans of beloved franchises like Star Wars (John Boyega as a black Stormtrooper) or the gender swapped Ghostbusters reboot. It’s crazy to me that the casting of a Latino in one of the earliest live action comic book adaptations wasn’t a big deal but we haven’t seen another since and it’s been fifty years! Fifty! Suicide Squad will feature the first Latino in a feature length super hero movie. Hollywood, where did it go wrong?

While Romero’s Joker lacked the disturbingly sinister qualities of the current crop of Jokers, his take mirrors the tone of the time when comics were more fun versus serious commentary. He’s an absolute delight to watch as he runs around blowing things up and blurting out some pretty bad puns. You can’t take your eyes off him. Romero stole the show in the 60s series and subsequent Jokers have aspired to do just that. The Joker wasn’t always the icon he turned into.  It’s important to credit Romero’s portrayal because without it, this character could have been pushed to the side to let the Riddler or the Penguin take over.

Romero’s Joker has a strong cult following. I’m always surprised to see his magenta suit and white face at Cons. His version is a popular costume every year. New generations continue to be exposed to him thanks to reruns on television. And with a new Joker being unleashed this weekend, the comparisons and contrasts are inevitable. And that’s a good thing because we should never forget the men like Cesar Romero who laid the groundwork for memorable experiences in entertainment.

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