moira finnie wrote:Welcome & my thanks to our guest, Dan Van Neste, for agreeing to visit and for your beautifully detailed biography of an actor whose versatile acting career spanned from the height of the silents to the television era. Here are a few questions to kick things off:
1.) What drew you to create the Cortez portrait and how did you go about acquiring so much information about such a private man and now rather obscure figure whose friends and acquaintances were gone?
2.) Ricardo Cortez--with his air of confidence & knowing manner--seems to have been born an adult. However, in reading your book I was touched to read of his deep concern about his role in supporting his family from a very early age. Did such worries affect him all his life? Do you think that acting was an escape from reality for him?
1) Since I was a kid, I was interested in old movies and villainous actors always caught my eye. Someone asked me recently when I first noticed Cortez. I don’t really recall, but since I loved horror and adventure films as a kid, I’m guessing I likely first saw him in THE WALKING DEAD (Warners, 1937) which was frequently broadcast on our local television station.
Since I began writing about classis movies and vintage film stars roughly thirty years ago, people have always been curious why I choose particular subjects. It sounds kind of corny, but I have always wanted to do original work and perhaps make a minor contribution to film history at the same time. Many fine books have been written chronicling the lives and careers of the more famous actors and filmmakers of classic cinema, but most of the lesser stars (second leads, character players who made significant contributions) have been ignored. I believe their stories should also be told. For me, Ricardo Cortez was the perfect subject. He was a popular and extremely charismatic actor of the late silent and early sound eras, appeared in over 100 feature films, worked with most of legendary filmmakers of his time, yet almost nothing has had been written about his life and career.
After I began my research, I soon discovered why nothing had been written about him. He didn’t leave papers or diaries, didn’t trust the press, and gave very few interviews, and, almost all of his contemporaries were deceased. When his widow died in 2007, most of his personal belongs and memorabilia was sold to the highest bidder. This presented a huge challenge. There were quite a few times during the four years I spent working on “The Magnificent Heel,” I contemplated abandoning the project, but I somehow kept the faith. I was inspired by my subject who faced incredible adversity and never never gave up! With the help of two great research assistants, we fanned out across the country scouring the libraries, archives and various newspapers for every shred of information. I got lucky along the way to communicate with a couple of Cortez’s relatives, and locate several personal items he owned until his death. Fate was kind to me!!
2) Great question, Moira! Ricardo Cortez was a splendid actor! I know that from watching 70+ of his films AND because personally, he was nothing like the characters he played so well. The air of confidence he communicated so well onscreen was a mask. He was a man with great insecurities and self-doubt, a loner who early on in his life realized if he were to survive, he would have to depend on himself. He was born in a tenement apartment in a very poor neighborhood in New York City. There’s a picture of Hester Street where he was born in my book. Life was a struggle there. Cortez never forgot where he came from and was determined to never have to return to that kind of life. He idolized his mother and father and took care of his family throughout his life, including helping his two brothers to enter the film business. Was acting an escape? I think to some degree it was. In one of the extremely rare interviews in which Cortez revealed his inner feelings, he told a reporter in 1932, “On the screen, I look like the most self-possessed person in the world. But that’s a bluff too. Actually the night before I start work on a picture, I can’t sleep a wink. But the next morning, in spite of my sleepless night, when I step on the set, I become just the workman doing his job, full of confidence. . .”