Fernando Fernán-Gómez: Much-loved star of Spanish film

Fernando Fernán-Gómez, actor, director and writer: born Lima 28 August 1921; married 1945 María Dolores Pradera (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1959), 2000 Emma Cohen; died Madrid 21 November 2007.

The greatly loved and respected actor Fernando Fernán-Gómez was laden with Spain's most distinguished awards during a career spanning 60 years; he appeared in 200 films, directed another 20 and wrote novels, plays and poetry. But he was an awkward, prickly man, often brusque to the point of rudeness, a bohemian with uncompromisingly anarchist political views.

Despite a booming voice and imposing manner, his timidity prompted stage fright so severe that eventually he abandoned live theatre to concentrate on films and directing. "The audience bothers me. I don't like people watching while I work," he complained.

Censored during the Franco years, Fernán-Gómez´s films were often commercial flops. But his face became one of the best known in Spanish cinema during the long dictatorship. As he entered old age he became a national treasure, winning widespread popularity and the admiration of a new generation of film-makers and filmgoers.

Fernando Fernán-Gómez was born into the theatrical world. His mother, the actress Carola Fernández Gómez, was touring Latin America when she gave birth in the Peruvian capital, Lima. She registered her baby in the Spanish consulate in Buenos Aires, and Fernan-Gómez kept his Argentine nationality until in 1970 he opted to become Spanish.

At three he returned to Spain, and at nine joined a school theatre group and made his stage début as a waiter. His adored mother and grandmother smothered him in love. "They made an effort to make me feel it was natural that I had no father, and I made sure they didn't realise that I knew that it wasn't normal," he recalled in his memoirs El tiempo amarillo ("The yellow time", 1990).

When war broke out in 1936, mother and grandmother pondered the future of their young teenager. "A clean job," opined the grandmother. "Certainly not a worker," echoed the mother. He joined amateur theatre groups, and grew so keen on theatre that he abandoned his literature and philosophy studies to devote himself to the stage.

He took classes in the Actors' School of the anarchist CNT trade union, and in 1938, aged 17, despite self-consciousness about being a clumsy redhead, he went professional. In his first speaking role in the Pavon theatre in Madrid, nerves made him fluff his lines. "I've always had a bad character," he said years later. "I was already horrible when I was young, to combat my shyness."

He appeared in romantic comedies throughout the Forties, before directing his first film, El Manicomio ("The madhouse"), in 1953, which flopped. His first success as director came in 1958 with La vida sigue adelante ("Life goes on").

Fernán-Gómez's first play to obtain major critical success was Las Bicicletas son para el Verano (Bicycles are for Summer) in 1977, about the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, made into a successful film in 1984. He won international acclaim for his role in the 1992 film Belle Epoque as father to four pretty daughters, among them Penélope Cruz. The film won nine Goya awards – Spain's equivalent of the Oscars – and an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Other triumphs included his dark El extraño viaje (Strange Journey) of 1964, censored by Franco; his role in Victor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) in 1973; and his 1985 novel El viaje a ninguna parte ("Journey to nowhere"), which he directed as a film in 1986.

One of his most popular later roles was as the kindly liberal-minded village school teacher hounded on the outbreak of civil war in José Luis Cuerda's La Lengua de Las Mariposas (Butterfly) of 1999. He also played a cameo in Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre (All about my mother), as an elderly father who meets the daughter he no longer recognises.

Almodóvar professed his "absolute admiration" for "the artist who represents the history of Spanish cinema from its beginnings". He added: "Fernando's ferocity was a myth. He just couldn't bear stupidity and mediocrity, and didn't hide the fact."

In 1995 Fernán-Gómez was awarded Spain's highest arts prize, that of the Prince of Asturias, and in 1998 elected to the Real Academia Española, watchdog of the Spanish language. He received a record seven Goyas. But, despite belated endorsement by the establishment, he led a huge demonstration in 2003 against Spain's participation in the Iraq war.

The Berlin film festival awarded him an honorary Golden Bear in 2004 for his life's work. But at a news conference at the festival the following year, he roared at a journalist to sit down and not pester him with more questions.

Elizabeth Nash

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