José Luis López Vázquez was widely regarded as Spain's greatest ever comic actor, yet he was most famous internationally for his lead role in the gruesome surrealist horror film The Telephone Box. The winner of an Emmy in 1972, the film begins simply enough when López Vázquez gets trapped inside a telephone box because its door has jammed shut. A crowd gathers, but all efforts to rescue him fail, and eventually the telephone box, with López Vázquez inside, is transported away on the back of a lorry. The lorry's destination is a vast mine full of neat rows of dead or dying individuals all caught inside identical telephone boxes. At first hysterical, López Vázquez slumps to the floor resigned to his fate, while the final shot is a new phone box being installed in the square where the film began, its door left tantalisingly half-open.
Claustrophobic and macabre, The Telephone Box was seen as a scarcely veiled critique of the ruling Franco regime. As such, the directors' choice of López Vázquez, who spent much of his career typecast as Spain's Mr. Normal, was a masterstroke.
Born in 1922 in Madrid to an impoverished working class family and brought up by his mother, López Vázquez's path into acting could easily have been a plot-line from one of his own films. A painter at a theatre, he was roped in as an emergency replacement for an actor taken sick. And, as in all best comedy, the stand-in became an overnight hit.
His popularity in Spain, though, was not due to his exceptional charisma or good looks. Physically unprepossessing, López Vázquez had a universal appeal because he was so skilful at acting the part of a stereotypical male Spaniard of the era – middle-aged, married, apolitical and all too often personally unfulfilled. Even his surnames helped: López and Vázquez are as common in Spain as Jones and Smith in the UK. Other ingredients of his Mr Everyman image, like the pencil-thin moustache and a severely receding hairline (with a few strands combed forlornly across his scalp), came with time.
For perhaps 30 years, a film starring López Vázquez was all but synonymous with a box office hit in Spain. Some were superficial in style and easily forgotten, but they often neatly encapsulated average Spanish social concerns of each generation – and the general public loved them.
El Pisito (The Apartment, 1959) was one classic example. Filmed during a period of extreme economic hardship still referred to by the Spanish as the "Years of Hunger", it is the account of two poor Madrileños' desperate search for a flat, and López Vázquez's disastrous attempt to take a short-cut to property ownership by marrying his aged landlady.
By the 1970s, as a firmly established figure in Spanish cinema, López Vázquez had two distinct strands to his career. While Spain edged towards sexual liberation during the last days of Franco's regime, some of his most popular and unchallenging films played shamelessly on the country's male fantasies of the time. The plot would be built around López Vázquez lounging in gigantic four-poster beds clad in the typical Spanish male forty-something night-time garb of pyjama bottoms and a sleeveless vest while frolicking with scantily dressed females, mainly foreign, who for some reason found him an irresistible example of Hispanic machismo.
But while such films have mostly ended up as grotesque museum pieces, López Vázquez was also heavily involved in more serious cinema, with one highlight being when he played Achille Dambreuse in George Cukor's Oscar-winning adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, Voyages with my Aunt (1972). There was also a political vein to his acting. Apart from The Telephone Box, López Vázquez worked on other subversive films such as El Jardin de las Delicias (The Garden of Delights, 1970), and played the lead role of a transsexual in Mi Querida Señorita (My Dearest Señorita, 1971), an issue barely recognised in Franco's Spain.
Given his legendary work capacity, it was no surprise that López Vázquez could work in such radically different films almost simultaneously. During his career he made over 250 films, with a record in 1972 of 11 in one year.
Even at 85, two years ago, López Vázquez was still working, his last film entitled ¿Y tú quié*eres? (And Who Are You?). In it, he helps a companion in an old people's home suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Appropriately enough, it was directed by Antonio Mercero, the director of The Telephone Box.
Following his death, the mayor of Madrid announced plans to name a street after López Vázquez, while one of the country's leading film directors, Santiago Segura, captured the widespread sentiment when he stated simply: "this is the end of an era."
José Luis López Vázquez, actor: born Madrid 11 March 1922; married firstly Ana María Ventura, partner to Catherine Magerus (two children), married secondly Flor Aguilar (two children), partner to Carmen de la Maza; died Madrid 2 November 2009.