Ramón Novarro was a Mexican actor of Hollywood who achieved fame as a “Latin lover” in silent films.
Born José Ramón Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico, he moved with his family to Los Angeles, California, to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. A second cousin of the Mexican actresses Dolores del Río and Andrea Palma, he entered films in 1917 in bit parts; and he supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, the actor and director Rex Ingram and his wife, the 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 brought him his first major success.
In 1925, he achieved his greatest success in Ben-Hur, his revealing costumes causing a sensation, and was elevated into the Hollywood elite. As with many stars, Novarro engaged Sylvia of Hollywood as a therapist. With Valentino’s death in 1926, Novarro became the screen’s leading Latin actor, though ranked behind his MGM stablemate, John Gilbert, as a model lover. He was popular as a swashbuckler in action roles and was considered one of the great romantic lead actors of his day. Novarro appeared with Norma Shearer in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg and with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore. He made his first talking film, starring as a singing French soldier, in Devil-May-Care. He also starred with the French actress Renée Adorée in The Pagan. Novarro starred with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari and was a qualified success opposite Myrna Loy in The Barbarian. When Novarro’s contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935, the studio did not renew it. He 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 John Huston’s We Were Strangers starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield. In 1958, he was considered for a role in a television series, The Green Peacock with Howard Duff and Ida Lupino after the demise of their CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. The project, however, never materialized. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s; but Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in NBC’s The High Chaparral as late as 1968.