Almost literally "born in a trunk" - Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez entered the world in Aquilares, Texas (now considered a ghost town) in 1925. The Texas native was born Ramiro Gonzalez-Gonzalez (the surnames of both his mother and father). As Pedro's entrance into the world approached, the couple extended their stay in Aquilares for three weeks rather than risk having Pedro born between towns. There he arrived - in a tent alongside a dressing room - the sixth of what would eventually become a family of nine children. His mother was a dancer from Mexico and his father was a trumpet player from Floresville, Texas. Mrs. Gonzalez performed under the stage name "La Perla Fronteriza" (Pearl of the Frontier) and reportedly once danced for Francisco "Pancho" Villa and his troops during one or another of the Mexican Revolutions.
The family's lifestyle was nomadic. Moving across the harsh landscape and performing at oil camps with no amenities, their audience was made up of entertainment-starved Mexican laborers. It wasn't the easiest gig, but times were hard and at least the audience was employed. Even before he could attend school (had there been one) Pedro joined one of his sisters in a comedy sketch. Billed as Las Perlitas (the Little Pearls) - it gave little Pedro an intoxicating taste of show business. Gasoline rationing during WWII put an end to the Mexican border circuit and the Gonzalez family sought other venues.
Married at age 17 to a 15-year old dancer, Leandra ("Lee") Aguirre, who he met while playing the same bill in San Antonio, Pedro was a driver in the Army during WWII. In the late 1940s his parents retired from show business and Pedro found himself working the comedy circuits primarily to Spanish-speaking audiences. He later adapted by learning English.
As a young man who could neither read nor write, Pedro found himself making ends meet by working at a television station in San Antonio, hauling cables and doing general grunt work. During a lull in a local telethon, Pedro was introduced on stage and his personality and style caught the attention of a visiting talent scout who encouraged him to be a contestant on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" series. The appearance (February 12, 1953), with the two comedians mugging and trading quips, proved a riotous success and caught the eye of none other than John Wayne, who signed Pedro to a contract with his production company. He was given a role in the movie The High and the Mighty (1954). It was the first of many character roles - usually comic relief - where Pedro played saloon keepers, cab drivers - or hotel proprietors. He stayed on the Wayne company payroll until 1974.
He never finished school and, thus, became a functional illiterate for the rest of his life. A character film actor was born, making his film debut with Wings of the Hawk (1953), Pedro would become a stock player in Wayne's company for nearly two decades, appearing alongside the Duke in such films as Hondo (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Wings of Eagles (1957), Rio Bravo (1959), McLintock! (1963), Hellfighters (1968) and Chisum (1970). He also appeared in three films that John Wayne produced but did not appear in: Ring of Fear (1954), Gun the Man Down (1956), and Man in the Vault (1956).
Many of the roles he played would today be considered somewhat politically incorrect for "reenforcing cultural stereotypes" - but to Pedro work was work. As a result of playing comic relief roles, he was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes about Hispanic men. However, Edward James Olmos said of Gonzalez-Gonzalez at the time of his death that he "inspired every Latino actor." He never turned down a role when it was offered. During his career he performed alongside such actors as Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Karl Malden, James Garner and James Arness. One of his early talents was making musical instruments out of tangible items such as hubcaps, water-filled bottles and frying pans. Frequently appeared in Rex Allen's live stage show during Rex Allen Days in Willcox, AZ. Also had an alley named for him there (adjacent to Rex Allen Drive). He is featured in a film that accompanies the boat ride in the Mexican pavilion at the EPCOT park located in Walt Disney World Flordia.
Between movie roles, television appearances helped pay the bills and Pedro appeared on shows ranging from Ozzie and Harriett and Art Linkletter to Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, I Spy and I Dream of Jeannie. As Pedro could not read or write, his wife would help him memorize his lines by reading his script to him, or sometimes the director would encourage the comedian to improvise a scene. Scores of TV parts came his way but the stereotype hurt him in the long run and prevented him from attaining top character stardom. Following the Duke's death in the late 70s, Pedro lost much of his desire to perform.
He and wife Lee had three children, Ramiro, Yolanda and Rosie. Son Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez Jr. (Ramiro) appeared with his father in The Young Land (1959) and McLintock! (1963), but eventually retired to become a physician. Well-known actor/grandson Clifton Collins Jr. electrified film audiences when he co-starred with Philip Seymour Hoffman as doomed murderer Perry Smith in the critically-acclaimed film Capote (2005). Pedro died at age 80 of natural causes in Culver City, California, survived by his beloved wife of nearly 64 years,two daughters, a son and seven grandchildren.
Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez was posthumously honoured on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 14, 2008. Samuel L. Jackson and the dead star's actor grandson Clifton Collins Jr. unveiled the 2,374th star, right next to movie legend's John Wayne, with whom Pedro co-starred in several films.
View his filmography, courtesy of Internet Movie DataBase.
Contributors to this article are Gary Brumburgh (IMDB mini-biograghy) and John Troesser from TexasEscapes.com (A Guy So Nice - They Named Him Twice).
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