Hollywood Flashback: Cesar Romero Reinvented Himself as the Joker

20th Century Fox Television/Photofest
Romero, who refused to shave off his signature mustache (seen beneath the white makeup), as the Joker on ABC’s 'Batman.'

The actor known as "the Latin from Manhattan" was an unexpected choice to play the villain in TV's 1960s 'Batman,' but the series reignited his fame. Now, Joaquin Phoenix steps into the iconic role for 'Joker,' which recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival and opens Oct. 4.

While at the movies it was Jack Nicholson who brought Batman's nemesis the Joker to over-the-top life in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster Batman, and it's Joaquin Phoenix who plays the makeup-loving criminal mastermind in Joker, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it was Cesar Romero who nailed the character on TV's Batman.

He was an unexpected choice. Born in New York to a Cuban mother and Spanish father, the 6-foot-3 Romero was nicknamed "the Latin from Manhattan." His career began in the early 1930s when he frequently portrayed the suave Latin gigolo. But he went on to play Italian gangsters, the Cisco Kid, Afghan rebels, Shirley Temple's turban-wearing Hindu friend in The Little Princess (1939) and a reformed mobster dealing with Frank Sinatra in Ocean's Eleven (1960).

Romero was constantly photographed escorting actresses to premieres and clubs, but according to stories he told author Boze Hadleigh for the 1996 book Hollywood Gays, he had a wide-ranging gay sex life. (According to Romero, Desi Arnaz didn't just love Lucy.)

When the chance to play the Joker came along in 1966, Romero was 59, and it reignited his fame.

"It's the kind of part where you can do everything you've been told not to do as an actor," he said in a 1966 television interview. "You can be as hammy as you want."

The ABC show was the year's most hyped midseason debut.

"An excellent campaign, one of the best ever given a TV show," said The Hollywood Reporter. "The producers also have spared no expense in creating the series for the small screen."

In its first year, the Adam West-fronted show ranked fifth in the ratings with 14 million viewers, but the novelty quickly wore off, and it lasted only two more seasons.

Romero died in Santa Monica on New Year's Day in 1994 at 86.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.