Richard Yniguez: The Original Boulevard Knight
"Everything happens on the boulevard - and the boulevard happens at night."
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
If you have watched TV or have gone to the movies over the last thirty years you know his face, even his voice, but may not know his name. He is Richard Yniquez, a seminal, in-demand character actor who has appeared in more than one hundred prime time television programs and feature films. In the Latino community, he is legendary for his leading role in the theatrical film Boulevard Nights. Produced by Tony Bill, Nights was the first major release film to topically explore the lowrider culture in the early 70's.
Published on LatinoLA: July 17, 2009
Richard explains, "I was born in Fresno County, California but was raised in Mexico by my father after my mother passed away while I was a child. I returned to the states when I was seventeen. My dad signed for me and I joined the Navy. Off I went into the Viet Nam controversy, heading overseas on the USS Yorktown for three and a half years. Saw most of Asia and lived through the tense years of war and social strife on board a ship. But we were not totally insulated; the problems at home affected us as well.
"Once back, and settled in LA, I did some odd jobs while attending East LA College in business administration. At this time I was living in a mortuary (Pierce Brothers, Simone on North Broadway) and was singing in the park while playing my guitar. During this time I learned of a new TV show that was going to cast from the real Latino community and they'd asked people to get involved in a crash course in acting. From that group of about four hundred they were going to pick a cast and create the first Latino family for a major prime time series on PBS. This was a soap-styled dramedy about the Avila famliy in East LA. The acting teachers were Victor Millian, Francisco Ortega, and Natividad Vacio. These men were primetime and film character actors. These were the men I had seen on TV while growing up and here they were actually teaching me the trade.
"They never choose the family from the neophytes. They hired pros. All of us who took the course were left out in the cold and didn't understand why we were not used as promised. We banded together and formed The Mexican American Theatre Workshop. We performed throughout Los Angeles and held classes to keep our work alive. I was one of the teachers at that point, along with Mario Aniov. Can you imagine? I had only three weeks of acting under my belt, but felt it was worth keeping alive. Mario had already studied and performed the classics; he knew what he was doing.
"It wasn't until weeks later that I was approached to play the youngest member of the Avila family. In 1968 I joined the cast and became a professional actor."
For many Latinos the doors for acting opportunities started to open in the early 70's, commensurate, and no doubt inspired, by social activism and a growing awareness of the emergence of Latino culture in the USA. So was it harder back then to get started in the business?
"Yes, it was a lot harder back then. Chicanos/Mexican Americans were not looked at in a positive way. Up to this time Latinos were played by non Latinos - mostly by Jews, Arabs, Italians, and even African Americans. It wasn't until Ricardo Montalban, who formed Nosotros, and Ray Andrade, who formed Justica, that we started a serious trend in the industry and cast real Latinos in real Latino roles. Ricardo put his career on the line. I knew him very well and have had the chance to work with him up close and personal as an activist and as an actor. He didn't shy away from controversy and was misquoted constantly. He never asked for actual Mexicans to play Mexicans. He only asked that we be given the opportunity to read for those important roles. They say that your ability to perform is determined by your last job. But we, Latino actors, don't have those opportunities coming down the pike. People may read this and think it's just sour grapes or that we have plenty of opportunities out there, just no actors to fill the parts. This is NOT true. And this is why we are creating our own films and internet websodes."
What about working Latinos now? How is it for them?
"Hollywood gets into the rut of using the same faces over and over again despite the inroads that some actors and actresses have made with their careers. You see them once and you never see them again. We live in a youth oriented society, always looking for the young and beautiful in the eyes of the mainstream. And Latinos ain't the mainstream. But we have an audience thirsty for stories they can relate to, hence we need to raise productions from our own community using that community's voice. Our voice."
Speaking of community, what did your family think about your decision to become an actor?
"My family didn't think much about me becoming an actor. In fact I was laughed at. True story. They thought I was nuts. I don't blame them. I thought I was nuts too. But there was something in me that persisted and I went on to work with some very wonderful people. Anthony Quinn, Robert Mitchum, Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, Glen Ford, Joan Plowright, and Ricardo Montalban, just to name a few. It was also nice to walk into an audition and be told that I had come highly recommended. I would ask by whom and the reply was always the same‘«™Ricardo Montalban.
"There had been times when the role for a specific show was already cast. A young activist working with Ricardo would fight to get people to be seen by the production and try to get an Hispanic actor cast since the lead role was that of a Latino. All he asked for was a chance for Latino actors to read for the part. That young activist, an actor himself, was Jerry Velasco and I've always remembered his fight for all of us. Getting back to the family, once I started to work it was a different story. They didn't laugh anymore. They wanted to visit the set and meet the other actors!"
What was your very first role? When did you know that you could do this?
"Cancion De La Raza, a dramedy soap for PBS. After a crash course in acting, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was actually theatre; you read the material, blocked it like a play, memorized it (I should say absorbed it) and then brought it to life for the cameras. For me acting is reacting. You listen and then react accordingly. In life and in acting there is no difference. The only thing different is that a writer took the time to create the scenario in which the character lives. The actor, with the guidance of the director, brings it to life. I love it!"
What is your favorite acting platform? Stage, screen, or TV? Why? Which is your least favorite?
"I like them all but prefer film acting. And there is a difference, believe me. I love to watch an actor think on film and wrestle with a problem. Steve McQueen was an expert at that‘«™you watched his every move and you knew what he was thinking. There is a subtlety in working with film that you don't have when working on the stage. Again it's listening and reacting in character to dialogue that you've heard repeatedly. Yet each take it's the first time. Taking your time is another interesting film thing for me. It's that time when nothing is being said but there is oh-so-much happening. That's the wonder of film and the trust one must have for the director."
How did Boulevard Nights come along? Whose idea was it? Why did you want to do the role? Did taking the role stereotype you as a Latino actor? (I met and interviewed Tony Bill on radio when the film came out)
"Boulevard Nights is a very interesting moment in my life. I had nothing to do with the idea or the making of the film. I was merely an actor for hire. I didn't even feel that I was right for the role. I thought I was too old and not really Chicano enough for what they were looking for. I didn't want to do the film on that basis; I just felt I wasn't right. But I was called back and the producer made me understand that the audience would believe what we told them and for me not to worry. I made my sentiments clear. They should market the film as a story of two brothers or as a love story between a young man and his girl. They went with the gang element which I think killed the point of the story. Tony Bill and I did not see the same opportunity. He did not include me in any promotion of the film and I would not have participated anyway. But, interestingly enough, the film has risen above all the negative sentiments in its time to bounce back as a classic. It is now seen with the proper eyes and appreciated for its message. I don't think I was stereotyped. It's what I am really, a Chicano actor who, given the opportunity, can play anything he is right for. In this business that's key. They don't use make-up to change an actor's appearance unless it's for age or special effects. I am ethnic looking in that I can play a person of Middle Eastern descent, Italian, Greek, you name it‘«™ The question is can they (Hollywood) get past the fact that my name is of Spanish origin? You don't have to go back too far to see who the non Latinos were that play us on screen."
What are you working on now? What kinds of projects would you like to do? Who would you like to work with? What are your plans for the future?
"I am very excited because I've been contacted by a gentleman who has been working on his own newsletter for the community and has created his own internet with programmable channels. He didn't wait for Hollywood or investors. He put his money where he felt he could make a difference. And now he's reached out to me. The opportunity to create content that makes a difference is just sparking my inner artist to express itself. Adrian Perez and The Latino Journal has me developing a partnership that can put together a machine not unlike the studio system of old Hollywood, where producers can interface with writers, directors, actors, etc‘«™ Some of the projects I hope to bring to the forefront will deal with aspects of our community that can make a difference in how we see ourselves:
American Anthology will focus on those in our ethnic communities who have contributed to the greatness of this country.
Divina Crane: A Latina psychologist who practices as a social worker under adverse conditions in the most dangerous areas of the inner city.
The Wanderer: An undercover Latino cop forced into retirement when hit by lightning. He survives and attains miraculous powers. He's on the run from a high priced detective hired by a billionaire and also has a price on his head from organized crime. It's the wanderer who can heal and bring people back from the brink of death. (Run For Your Life meets Highway To Heaven)
Soldaderas: A look into the lives of the women of the Mexican revolution. War hasn't changed and women have always been in the forefront.
Circus World: A circus clown is saddled with his three nephews after an auto accident takes the life of their parents.
Ku Kul Kan (mythical Mayan hero) is a super hero living in the inner city. He uses the powers of stealth, levitation and the super human strength of the ancient aboriginal Mayan people."
In the promotion for the film Boulevard Nights it says:
"Everything happens on the boulevard - and the boulevard happens at night."
The question for Latino artists remains. Whose boulevard is it?
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor:
Edited By Susan Aceves
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