Biography of Cesar Romero, Batman's Original Joker

Cesar Romero
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Cesar Julio Romero, Jr. (February 15, 1907 - January 1, 1994) is best remembered for playing the role of the super-villain Joker on the 1960s TV show Batman. Before his TV success, he had a long career as a supporting actor in movies.

Fast Facts: Cesar Romero

  • Full Name: Cesar Julio Romero, Jr.
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: February 15, 1907 in New York City, New York, USA
  • Died: January 1, 1994 in Santa Monica, California, USA
  • Education: Collegiate School for Boys, New York City
  • Key Accomplishment: Acclaimed for his portrayal of the Joker in the 1960s Batman TV show

Early Life

Born into a wealthy Cuban immigrant family in New York City, Cesar Romero often referred to himself as the "Latin from Manhattan." He was the grandson of Cuban political hero and author Jose Martí. Romero's family grew wealthy in the sugar import and export business. Young Cesar grew up surrounded by other New York socialites.

As a teenager, Romero met Lisbeth Higgins, who taught him to dance. They formed a professional partnership and began dancing in nightclubs and theaters in and around New York City. Romero appeared in off-Broadway stage productions including Stella Brady and Dinner at Eight.

In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, Romero's family suffered significant financial losses. His family eventually followed him to the West Coast in the 1930s following his success in Hollywood movies.

Hollywood Success

Romero's first onscreen role came in 1934's comedy detective hit The Thin Man, in which he played a Latin gigolo. In 1935, he secured his first lead role opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman. Romero's career as a leading man was short-lived. The bulk of his parts were played in support of the leads. He appeared with many of the top stars of the 1930s and early 1940s including Shirley Temple in her hits Wee Willie Winkie and The Little Princess.

Beginning in 1939, Romero appeared as the Cisco Kid in six B-movie westerns featuring the character. After performing in a secondary role in Warner Baxter's final lead appearance in the series, Romero took over the lead. His last appearance in the series was the 1941 film Ride on Vaquero. Duncan Renaldo became the next Cisco Kid in 1945.

Hollywood took advantage of Cesar Romero's dancing prowess in the early 1940s. He appeared in musicals with Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. Among his successes in supporting roles were Springtime in the Rockies and Week-End in Havana.

World War II interrupted Cesar Romero's movie career. In October 1942, he voluntarily enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and served in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Romero's shipmates reported that he expected no special consideration based on his movie stardom. He saw combat in the invasions of the islands Tinian and Saipan.

After the war, Cesar Romero resumed his film career. Reportedly, legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck personally requested that Romero be hired to co-star with Tyrone Power in the big budget 1947 historical epic Captain from Castile. In 1956, Romero was one of the multiple stars who appeared in supporting roles in the 1956 Academy Award Best Picture-winning hit Around the World in 80 Days. One of his most memorable film roles came in 1960's Oceans 11. He played the supporting role of Frank Sinatra's nemesis Duke Santos. It was one of four films Romero made with Frank Sinatra.

The Joker on TV's Batman

Cesar Romero's first TV appearances came in the mid-1950s on The Martha Raye Show. He appeared as a guest and in supporting roles on a wide range of shows over the next decade from Wagon Train to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In 1966, he landed the role that would make him a TV legend.

Batman & Robin & The Joker
Romero (furthest to the right) in character as the Joker on the set of the 1960s TV show, Batman. 20th Century Fox / Getty Images

Romero appeared in the surprise 1966 TV series Batman as super-villain Joker, a white-faced, green-haired, purple-suited clown. He quickly became one of the most popular villains on the show. Ultimately, Romero appeared as Joker in ten different stories during the three-year run of Batman. He appeared more frequently than any other villain except for Burgess Meredith as the Penguin.

Cesar Romero refused to shave his signature mustache when he portrayed Joker. His white face makeup was applied on top of his facial hair, and the mustache is plainly visible in close-ups from the show.

Later Career

Romero returned to films in 1969. He portrayed the villain A.J. Arno in the successful Walt Disney trio of films starring Kurt Russell known as the "Dexter Reilly trilogy" after the name of Russell's main character. The most significant box office success of the trio was 1975's The Strongest Man in the World.

Cesar Romero also continued to appear in TV roles into the early 1990s. He appeared in a recurring role as the character Senor Armendariz in the early 1970s western Alias Smith and Jones. In 1971, he appeared on the Night Gallery anthology TV series as Count Dracula. He created another memorable character in 51 episodes of the mid-1980s primetime soap opera Falcon Crest. Romero was the Greek billionaire Peter Stavros. He appeared on the hit TV comedy Golden Girls in 1990 in one of his last onscreen appearances as Sophia's suitor Tony Delvecchio.

Death and Legacy

Romero died on New Year's Day 1994 from complications of a blood clot. Romero will always be remembered primarily for bringing to life the most celebrated villain of the enduring Batman franchise. He also blazed a trail for Latin performers to come, maintaining his status as a key supporting player for six decades. When he passed away in the 1990s, his face was one of the most instantly recognizable in Hollywood history.