Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales was a diminutive Mexican character actor, particularly adept at comedy, who was featured in dozens of movies and television shows, after making a sensationally effective appearance in 1953 as a contestant on a television quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx, You Bet Your Life. John Wayne was one of the millions who saw the show, and he immediately signed the actor to a contract with his company, Batjac, and cast him in the all-star blockbuster The High and the Mighty (1954).
Born Ramiro Gonzales-Gonzales in Mexico in 1925, but nicknamed Pedro, he was raised in a show-business environment - his father was a trumpeter and his mother a dancer:
My mother was a big star in the silent movies in Mexico. She danced with her brother and sister - the three of them danced together for Pancho Villa. My father was playing trumpet in a theatre in San Antonio, Texas, when my mother came from Mexico to dance in the same theatre. They fell in love and got married there in that theatre - my wife and I also got married in the same theatre.
One of nine children growing up during the Depression, he had little formal education, and never learned to read or write, though he developed an exceptional memory. He taught himself to play drums, guitar and piano, as well as such unconventional instruments as pots and pans, and started his career as a comic in Spanish-speaking venues, but later said, "When I worked in Spanish I was starving. As soon as I worked in English I was all right." He added, "I never learned to speak English too good, but the audience liked it like that."
You Bet Your Life débuted on television in 1950 and, although ostensibly a quiz show, its appeal was primarily in the interviews that Groucho Marx conducted with contestants before they played the game. The classic episode featuring Gonzales-Gonzales was aired on 12 February 1953, and those who saw it still recall crying with laughter. Marx had particular fun with Pedro's surname, and at one point asked him, "If we did an act together, what would we be called?" "It would be Gonzales- Gonzales and Marx," was the reply. "Do you believe that?" quipped Marx. "Two men in the act and I still get third billing!" The show was such a hit that Gonzales-Gonzales was called back for a second appearance.
He made his screen début in Budd Boetticher's lively western, shot in 3-D, Wings of the Hawk (1953). A small role in the Batjac production Hondo (1953), also shot in the short-lived 3-D system, preceded his memorable cameo in The High and the Mighty (1954), in which he played a ship's radio operator in touch with a stricken airliner, advising the pilots to "Keep that ship in the air if you can - it's wet down here." For some of his scenes, he was seated in a chair which slides from one side of the room to the other as the ship rocks.
Last year, he was one of those who provided a commentary for the film's release on DVD and he recalled the director William Wellman's getting annoyed because the actor found it difficult to remember his lines while being pulled from side to side by concealed ropes. Wellman suggested that the lines be written down so that the actor could read them as he slid past, which prompted Gonzales-Gonzales to confess that he could not read. Andrew McLaglen, assistant director on the movie, recalled Wellman's reaction - "He went over and hugged Pedro, and from that moment on he adored him."
Gonzales-Gonzales, when interviewed about his preparation for roles, said,
My wife would read the script to me, translating into Spanish. I would then understand the meaning of the dialogue. Wellman told me, "Don't overlap", so I would count one, two, three, then say my line.
His role in The High and the Mighty, primarily a humorous one, concludes with a serious moment, for which Wellman told him, "Your fun is over. Kind of switch yourself." The sequence, in which the radio operator, after his last contact with the plane, goes out to the ship's deck, looks up in the dark mist, then crosses himself, is a remarkably touching moment.
Gonzales-Gonzales appeared with Wayne in several more films, sometimes unbilled, including Rio Bravo (1959), as Carlos, the hotel owner who is one of the few to offer support to the outnumbered sheriff John Wayne, McLintock (1963), Hellfighters (1968) and Chisum (1970), and he was also a regular face in Walt Disney productions, including The Love Bug (1968) and The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1971). Other films which benefited from his spirited playing included I Died a Thousand Times (1955), Strange Lady in Town (1955), The Sheepman (1958), The Young Land (1959) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).
Many of the roles Gonzales-Gonzales played were stereotypical Hispanic roles of barmen, taxi drivers or barbers, often providing a moment of light relief. In 1959 he starred with Barry Nelson in an unsold television pilot for a western series set in Canada, Hudson Bay. He also became popular with western fans for appearances as sidekick to cowboy star Rex Allen, both on television and in many public appearances. Allen wrote in his autobiography, My Life, Sunrise to Sunset (1989),
Pedro is like a brother to me. Every time I needed an act to work on stage with me, I chose Pedro, because he is a showman.
His final acting role was in an episode of the television series Land's End in 1995.