Ramon Novarro

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Ramon Novarro
Ramon Novarro in The Blue Book of the Screen.jpg
Ramon Novarro in 1922
José Ramón Gil Samaniego

(1899-02-06)February 6, 1899
DiedOctober 30, 1968(1968-10-30) (aged 69)
Cause of deathAsphyxiation (murdered)
Resting placeCalvary Cemetery
Other names
  • Ramon Samaniego
  • Ramón Samaniego
  • Ramon Samaniegos
Years active1917–1968
RelativesDolores del Río (cousin)
Andrea Palma (cousin)
Julio Bracho (cousin)
AwardsHollywood Walk of Fame (Motion Picture)

José Ramón Gil Samaniego (February 6, 1899 – October 30, 1968), known professionally as Ramon Novarro, was a Mexican-American film, stage and television actor who began his career in silent films in 1917 and eventually became a leading man and one of the top box office attractions of the 1920s and early 1930s. Novarro was promoted by MGM as a "Latin lover" and became known as a sex symbol after the death of Rudolph Valentino.

Early life[edit]

Ramon Novarro by Hurrell

Novarro was born José Ramón Gil Samaniego on February 6, 1899, in Durango City, Durango, north-west Mexico, to Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, and his wife, Leonor (Pérez Gavilán).[1] The family moved to Los Angeles to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913.[2] Novarro's direct ancestors came from the Castilian town of Burgos, whence two brothers emigrated to the New World in the seventeenth century.[3]

Allan Ellenberger, Novarro's biographer, writes:

[... t]he Samaniegos were an influential and well-respected family in Mexico. Many Samaniegos had prominent positions in the affairs of state and were held in high esteem by the president. Ramon's grandfather, Mariano Samaniego, was a well-known physician in Juarez. Known as a charitable and outgoing man, he was once an interim governor for the State of Chihuahua and was the first city councilman of El Paso, Texas ...
Ramon's father, Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, was born in Juarez and attended high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. After receiving his degree in dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Durango, Mexico, and began a flourishing dental practice. In 1891 he married Leonor Pérez-Gavilán, the beautiful daughter of a prosperous landowner. The Pérez-Gaviláns were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood, and according to local legend, they were descended from Guerrero, a prince of Montezuma.[4]

The family estate was called the "Garden of Eden". Thirteen children were born there: Emilio; Guadalupe; Rosa; Ramón; Leonor; Mariano; Luz; Antonio; José; a stillborn child; Carmen; Ángel and Eduardo.[4] At the time of the Mexican Revolution, the family moved from Durango to Mexico City and then returned to Durango. Three of Ramón's sisters, Guadalupe, Rosa, and Leonor, became nuns.[5] He was a second cousin of the Mexican actresses Dolores del Río[6] and Andrea Palma.


Silent films[edit]

Novarro with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)

He entered films in 1917, in bit parts. He supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, actor and director Rex Ingram and his wife, 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 (1923) brought him his first major success.

Novarro achieved his greatest success in 1925, in Ben-Hur. His revealing costumes caused a sensation. He was elevated into the Hollywood elite.[7] As did many stars, Novarro engaged Sylvia of Hollywood as a physical therapist (although in her tell-all book, Sylvia erroneously claimed that Novarro slept in a coffin).[8] With Valentino's death in 1926, Novarro became the screen's leading Latin actor, though ranked lower than his MGM contemporary John Gilbert as a leading man. Novarro was popular as a swashbuckler in action roles, and considered one of the great romantic lead actors of his day. He appeared with Norma Shearer in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore (1928).

Talking films[edit]

Novarro with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore (1928)

He made his first talking film, starring as a singing French soldier, in Devil-May-Care (1929). He starred with Dorothy Janis in The Pagan (1929), with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), with Myrna Loy in The Barbarian (1933) and opposite Lupe Vélez in Laughing Boy (1934).

When his contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935 and the studio did not renew it, Novarro 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 We Were Strangers (1949), directed by John Huston and starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield. In 1958, he was considered for a role in the television series The Green Peacock, with Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, after their CBS Television sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve (1957–58). The project, however, never materialized. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s. Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in NBC's The High Chaparral as late as 1968.

At the peak of his success in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Novarro was earning more than US$100,000 per film. He invested some of his income in real estate, and his Hollywood Hills residence is one of the more renowned designs (1927) by Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright.[9] When his career ended, he was still able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

Personal life[edit]

Novarro with Lupe Vélez in Laughing Boy (1934)

Novarro was troubled all his life by his conflicted feelings toward his Roman Catholic religion and his homosexuality.[10] His life-long struggle with alcoholism is often traced to these problems.[11][12][13] In the early 1920s Novarro had a romantic relationship with composer Harry Partch, who was working as an usher at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time, but Novarro broke off the affair as he achieved greater success as an actor.[14][15] He was romantically involved with Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe, who was also his publicist in the late 1920s,[16] and with a wealthy man from San Francisco, Noël Sullivan.[17]

Along with Dolores del Río, Lupe Vélez and James Cagney, Novarro was accused of promoting Communism in California after they attended a special screening of the film ¡Que viva México! by famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.


Novarro was murdered on October 30, 1968, by brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson, aged 22 and 17, who called him and offered their sexual services. He had in the past hired prostitutes from an agency to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex, and the Fergusons obtained Novarro's telephone number from a previous guest.[18][19][20]

According to the prosecution in the murder case, the two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden in Novarro's house. The prosecution accused the brothers of torturing Novarro for several hours to force him to reveal where the non-existent money was hidden. They left the house with $20 they took from his bathrobe pocket. Novarro died as a result of asphyxiation, having choked to death on his own blood after being beaten.[21] The two perpetrators were caught and sentenced to long prison terms, but released on parole in the mid-1970s. Both were later re-arrested for unrelated crimes for which they served longer prison terms than for the murder of Novarro.[22] In a 1998 interview, Paul Ferguson finally assumed the blame for Novarro's death.[23] Tom Ferguson committed suicide on March 6, 2005. Paul Ferguson is currently serving a 60-year sentence for rape in Missouri.[24]

Novarro is buried in Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles, California.[25] Novarro's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 6350 Hollywood Boulevard.

In popular culture[edit]

Image of Ramón Novarro.

Novarro's murder served as the basis for the short story by Charles Bukowski called "The Murder of Ramon Vasquez", as well as for the song "Tango," by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, recorded by Peggy Lee on her Mirrors album.

Novarro's murder is among the many epochal events recalled in Joan Didion's meditative 'California zeitgeist' essay The White Album.

Novarro's murder is also briefly referenced in the sixth season The Sopranos episode "Cold Stones", following the violent murder of a closeted homosexual character.

In late 2005, the Wings Theatre in New York City staged the world premiere of Through a Naked Lens by George Barthel. The play combined fact and fiction to depict Ramon Novarro's rise to fame and his relationship with Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe.

In 2015, the murder of Ramon Novarro was covered in the television series Aquarius in the episode "Cease to Resist".

Novarro's relationship with Herbert Howe is discussed in two biographies: Allan R. Ellenberger's Ramón Novarro and André Soares's Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramón Novarro.

Prize-winning Greek playwright Pavlos Matesis wrote a play in two parts titled "The Ghost of Mr. Ramon Novarro", which was first staged at the National Theatre of Greece in 1973.[26]


Ramon Novarro.
Ramon Novarro in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922).
Picture of Ramon Novarro 1929 (Óleo sobre lienzo) by Ángel Zárraga.
Year Title Role Notes
1916 Joan the Woman Starving Peasant Uncredited
1917 The Jaguar's Claws Bandit Uncredited
1917 The Little American Wounded Soldier Uncredited
1917 The Hostage Uncredited
1917 The Woman God Forgot Aztec man Uncredited
1918 The Goat Uncredited
1921 A Small Town Idol Dancer as Ramón Samaniego
1921 The Concert Dancing shepherd Uncredited, lost film
1921 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Guest at Ball (extra) Uncredited
1921 Man-Woman-Marriage Dancer Uncredited
1922 Mr. Barnes of New York Antonio as Ramon Samaniego
1922 The Prisoner of Zenda Rupert of Hentzau as Ramon Samaniegos
1922 Trifling Women Henri / Ivan de Maupin Lost film
1923 Where the Pavement Ends Motauri Lost film
1923 Scaramouche André-Louis Moreau, Quintin's Godson
1924 Thy Name Is Woman Juan Ricardo
1924 The Arab Jamil Abdullah Azam
1924 The Red Lily Jean Leonnec
1925 A Lover's Oath Ben Ali *lost; but A.M.P.A.S. has 25 feet of this film
1925 The Midshipman Dick Randall
1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ Judah Ben-Hur
1927 Lovers José Lost film
1927 The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg Crown Prince Karl Heinrich
1927 The Road to Romance José Armando Lost film
1928 Across to Singapore Joel Shore
1928 A Certain Young Man Lord Gerald Brinsley Lost film
1928 Forbidden Hours His Majesty, Michael IV
1929 The Flying Fleet Ens. / Ltjg Tommy Winslow
1929 The Pagan Henry Shoesmith, Jr.
1929 Devil-May-Care Armand de Treville
1930 In Gay Madrid Ricardo
1930 The March of Time Himself Unfinished film
1930 Call of the Flesh Juan de Dios
1930 Sevilla de mis amores Juan de Dios Carbajal Spanish version of Call of the Flesh
1931 Le chanteur de Séville Juan French version of Call of the Flesh
1931 Daybreak Willi Kasder
1931 Son of India Karim
1931 Mata Hari Lt. Alexis Rosanoff
1931 Wir schalten um auf Hollywood Himself
1932 Huddle Antonio "Tony" Amatto
1932 The Son-Daughter Tom Lee / Prince Chun
1933 The Barbarian Jamil El Shehab
1934 The Cat and the Fiddle Victor Florescu
1934 Laughing Boy Laughing Boy
1935 The Night Is Young Archduke Paul "Gustl" Gustave
1936 Against the Current
Director, writer
1937 The Sheik Steps Out Ahmed Ben Nesib
1938 A Desperate Adventure André Friezan Alternative title: It Happened in Paris
1940 La comédie du bonheur Félix
1940 Ecco la felicità Felice Ciatti Italian version of La comédie du bonheur
1942 The Saint Who Forged a Country Juan Diego
1949 We Were Strangers Chief
1949 The Big Steal Inspector General Ortega
1950 The Outriders Don Antonio Chaves
1950 Crisis Colonel Adragon
1960 Heller in Pink Tights De Leon
Year Title Role Notes
1958 Disney's Wonderful World Don Esteban Miranda 2 episodes
1962 Thriller Maestro Giuliano Episode: "La Strega"
1964 Dr. Kildare Gaspero Paolini 3 episodes
1964–1965 Combat! Charles Gireaux
Count De Roy
2 episodes "Silver Service" & "Finest Hour"
1965 Bonanza Jose Ortega Episode: "The Brass Box"
1967 The Wild Wild West Don Tomas Episode: "The Night of the Assassin"
1968 The High Chaparral Padre Guillermo Episode: "A Joyful Noise", (final appearance)


  1. ^ Ramon Novarro at Find a Grave
  2. ^ Meier, Matt S.; Gutiérrez, Margo (2003). The Mexican American Experience: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 284. ISBN 0-313-31643-0.
  3. ^ Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro By André Soares
  4. ^ a b Ellenberger, Allan R. (2009). Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899–1968; with a Filmography. McFarland. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-7864-4676-6.
  5. ^ Ellenberger 2009, pp. 8–9
  6. ^ Monush, Barry (2003). Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the Silent Era to 1965. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 188. ISBN 1-55783-551-9.
  7. ^ Rodriguez, Roberto (1996). "The early years – the portrayal of minorities in Hollywood film industry". Black Issues In Higher Education. Archived from the original on 16 May 2007. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  8. ^ Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary. Brentano's. 1931. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  9. ^ "Lloyd Wright (1890–1978)". ArchitechGallery.com. Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
  10. ^ Ellenberger 2009, p. 148
  11. ^ Soares, André (19 April 2010). Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. University Press of Mississippi. p. 245.
  12. ^ Mann, William (2002). Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood. New York City: Penguin Books. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-14-200114-1.
  13. ^ "Ramon Navarro [sic]". Olvera-street.com. Archived from the original on 28 March 2010. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
  14. ^ Gilmore, Bob (1998). Harry Partch: A Biography. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06521-3.
  15. ^ Holliday, Peter J. "Novarro, Ramon (1899–1968)". glbtq.com. Archived from the original on 7 November 2007. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  16. ^ Slide, Anthony (26 February 2010). Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine. University Press of Mississippi. p. 79. ISBN 978-1-60473-413-3. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  17. ^ "Finding Aid to the Noël Sullivan papers, [ca. 1911–1956], [ca. 1911–1956]" (PDF). Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  18. ^ Rechy, John (24 August 2003). "A star is killed: Hollywood's deadly secret". LA Times. Archived from the original on 12 July 2018. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  19. ^ "Ramon Novarro Slain on Coast. Starred in Silent Film 'Ben-Hur'. Ramon Novarro, Silent Era Star, Slain". New York Times. The New York Times Company. 1 November 1968. Archived from the original on 18 February 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2014. Ramon Novarro, the Mexican-born star of scores of Hollywood movies made in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, was found bludgeoned to death in his $125,000 Hollywood Hills home early this morning.
  20. ^ Maloney, J. J. O'Connor, Pat (ed.). "The Murder of Ramon Novarro". Crimemagazine.com. Archived from the original on 6 January 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  21. ^ Ellenberger 2009, pp. 182, 187
  22. ^ Ellenberger 2009, p. 196
  23. ^ Ivey, Randall (21 July 2010). "'Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Navarro' by Andre Soares". Lambda Literary. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  24. ^ "'Ramon Navarro Hustler's Murder in Hollywood". Retrieved 30 March 2020.
  25. ^ Wilson, Scott (14 August 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3rd ed.). McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers. p. 374. ISBN 978-1-4766-2599-7. OCLC 948561021.
  26. ^ "Archives of the Greek National Theatre". NT Archiver (in Greek). Εθνικό Θέατρο. 2008–2011. Retrieved 5 March 2019.


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