Obituary: Gilbert Roland

Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso (Gilbert Roland), actor: born Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico 11 December 1903; married first Constance Bennett (died 1965; two daughters; marriage dissolved); secondly Guillermina Cantu; died Los Angeles 15 May 1994.

MORE Mexicans live in California now than when it formed part of Mexico. The Hollywood studios, however, have never regarded them as a lucrative audience and have made few films either for or about them. Yet one of the most remarkable stories of a Mexican immigration occurred right under the studios' noses.

Gilbert Roland was born Luis Alonso in 1905 in Juarez, on the Mexican border with Texas. His father, Francisco, was a bullfighter who had come from Spain. Luis had ambitions to follow his father as a torero and Francisco encouraged him. 'Remember', he told his son, 'Women gore more often than bulls.'

When the revolution swept over their town, Francisco Alonso led his family to safety across the Rio Grande. In El Paso, Texas, they encountered anti-Mexican hostility and Luis retreated more and more into the welcoming dark of the motion-picture houses, even though he was relegated to the balcony 'For Colored People Only'. He was particularly enamoured of the serial star Ruth Roland. When his mother gave him money to buy groceries for the family, he spent it on the movies. 'I was punished, but it did not matter. The movies were my life.'

Luis became a newspaper boy, and occasionally attended school, but encountered little but open hostility for being a 'greaser'. He was once beaten for not knowing all the words to 'The Star-Spangled Banner'. He graduated to working as a messenger boy until he was hit by a car and almost killed. Recovery was slow; when his father went to fight bulls in Tia Juana, Luis went with him, staying on a ranch in San Diego. There he met a Mexican who played bit parts in movies, Chris-Pin Martin. Martin advised Luis to go to Hollywood, and to try to get work at the studios on Gower Street - Gower Gulch. Luis did so, and was hired as a cowboy extra - then as an Indian. 'All day I chased myself on horseback for three dollars and lunch. My baptism in silent movies.'

But such good fortune was rare, and the youthful Alonso trekked from studio to studio - often incredible distances - finding little employment. He managed to land a job answering fan mail for Antonio Moreno. One night he was working on the backlot when a great star visited the set - Norma Talmadge. Alonso had long admired Talmadge, and had even decorated his bedroom wall with her photograph. He was gratified to find his idol as beautiful and charming in real life as she was on the screen.

Thanks to his knowledge of bull-fighting, he was retained as a dresser's assistant to prepare Valentino for the arena scenes in Blood and Sand (1922). When a fight erupted among the extras and Luis received a superficial stab wound, it was Valentino - to his amazement and delight - who bandaged his wound with a monogrammed handkerchief.

Alonso had grown into a remarkably handsome young man, and an agent called Ivan Kahn decided he looked like John Gilbert, who was then MGM's leading star. MGM cast him in The Midshipman (1925) with Ramon Novarro, a fellow Mexican whose family knew the Alonsos before the revolution.

What with Valentino and Novarro, Kahn thought there were too many Latins in the movies, and suggested Alonso changed him name to George Adams. Alonso chose his name from his two favourite starts - Ruth Roland and John Gilbert.

Kahn secured Roland a substantial role in a Clara Bow film The Plastic Age (1925). Roland fell in love with Clara Bow, and nearly married her, but her father told him, 'What do you make? A hundred and fifty a week. Clara makes two thousand. When you make two thousand a week, you marry Clara Bow.'

Cast opposite Ann Rork (Mrs J. Paul Getty) in The Blonde Saint (1926), Roland at last won critical attention. As a result, he was signed to a contract by Joseph M. Schenck, president of United Artists. The Los Angeles Times carried the headline of his dreams: 'Gilbert Roland to Star with Norma Talmadge in Camille'. His was the part Valentino had played a few years before. But suddenly, Valentino was dead of peritonitis and a Hollywood weekly declared 'Gilbert Roland looms as Valentino's successor.'

Once again, Roland fell in love, but Norma Talmadge was married to the much older Schenck who refused her a divorce. He also threatened Roland with an unspeakable fate. Talmadge and Roland went on a voyage together, but the relationship failed to last. She met the actor and producer George Jessel, Schenck agreed this time to a divorce, and the studio doors closed for a while on Roland. He found himself playing Armand again, opposite Jane Cowl - on the stage. Without any kind of theatrical training, he found it a terrifying experience.

Roland worked his way back into pictures, becoming a dependable supporting actor rather than the star he had been for a brief and heady period.

When David Gill and I were making a documentary about Buster Keaton, we contacted Roland in the hope of filming an interview with him, for Keaton had been one of this closest friends. He invited us to lunch at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, where he played well into his eighties. And there was no mistaking him when he arrived; he wore a white hat, and open-necked white shirt, showing the old religious medallion hanging at his chest. He had great charisma, and immense charm; he embraced people instead of shaking their hands, and he had no Anglo-Saxon reticence about emotion.

But reticent he was about being interviewed. He refused point- blank to appear on camera. We had the distinct impression that he was shy. He had been a sky- rocketing star in the last years of silent films, and his affection and admiration for silent films was apparent. But he would not repeat his reminiscences on camera.

Fortunately, he spent the last years putting his memories on to tape - when he could play back, edit and re-record if necessary. And in 1988, he proved himself as a writer, with an autobiography - as yet unpublished - in the style of a man he greatly admired, Ernest Hemingway. He called it The Wine of Yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape