'Touch of Evil' Actor Valentin de Vargas Dies at 78

Valentin de Vargas Janet Leigh Touch of Evil - H 2013
Everett Collection

Memorable as a punk terrorizing Janet Leigh in the Orson Welles crime thriller, he also appeared in such films as "Blackboard Jungle," "Hatari!" and "To Live and Die in L.A."

Valentin de Vargas, a veteran character actor who terrified Janet Leigh in a darkened Mexican motel room in the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil, has died. He was 78.

De Vargas died June 10 of myelodysplastic syndrome in Tulsa, Okla. He was laid to rest Tuesday at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico; his daughter, Los Angeles interior designer Vanessa de Vargas, said the family wanted to wait until his burial to announce his death.

A native of Albuquerque, N.M., the handsome, swarthy de Vargas forged a 50-year career playing good guys and bad in dozens of films and TV shows.

He was at his slimy best in Touch of Evil (1958) as Pancho, one of a pack of crazy greasers who lures Leigh -- who plays the wife of Charlton Heston's narcotics officer -- into a seedy border-town motel, where she's drugged, gang-raped (off-camera) and framed for murder. 

In one unforgettable shot, a close-up shows de Vargas' distorted face as he hovers over Leigh and flicks out his tongue like a snake. Later in the film, Heston pounds his head into a jukebox.

Earlier, de Vargas was another flawed Latino juvenile (and classmate of Sidney Poitier) in his first film, Richard Brooks' seminal Blackboard Jungle (1955). He didn't have a line but appeared in virtually every school scene.

In Howard Hawks' action-packed Hatari! (1962), de Vargas played a Mexican, Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez, a member of an international band of animal catchers led by John Wayne in Africa. He starred with Wayne again in another action flick, Hellfighters (1968), about oil-fire fighters.

De Vargas also was a henchman in The Magnificent Seven (1960), a Marine in the Korean War drama The Nun and the Sergeant (1962) and a judge in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).

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His daughter Vanessa told The Hollywood Reporter how her father called Welles "unpredictable" during the filming of Touch of Evil; how Universal freaked out when the director cast Marlene Dietrich, on contract at another studio, for a key role; and how amazed he was when he discovered years later that Dennis Weaver also was in the film.

Key moments of the movie were shot along Windward Avenue in Venice, Calif., and Vanessa said she was pleasantly surprised to find her father's character depicted on a neighborhood mural called "Touch of Venice" that was completed in April 2012.

On television, de Vargas had noteworthy guest-starring turns on Bracken's World, Hill Street Blues and The Wild Wild West and appeared on other shows including Broken Arrow, Hawaiian Eye, Bonanza, The Fugitive, Mannix, The F.B.I., That Girl, Death Valley Days, T.J. Hooker, Dallas, The Streets of San Francisco and Airwolf.

De Vargas was active in Nosotros, the organization founded by Ricardo Montalban to support Latinos in show business, and he took acting classes taught by Anthony Quinn.

De Vargas, of Spanish and Austrian descent, was born Albert Charles Schubert on April 27, 1935, on a ranch in Albuquerque, the son of a distributor. He moved to Los Angeles, enrolled at the all-boys Loyola University to pursue a law degree and served in the U.S. Army. He responded to a flyer posted at Loyola to audition for a high school student role in Blackboard Jungle.

One of de Vargas’ uncles, Don Alvarado, played dashing Latin lovers in silent movies and now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His daughter with actress Ann Boyar was Joy Page, who had a pivotal role in Casablanca as the newlywed who might have to sleep with Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) in order to obtain an exit visa for her and her husband. Warner Bros. studio chief Jack L. Warner, who had married Boyar after her divorce, got Page the role.

Another de Vargas uncle, Carlos Alvarado, is thought to be the first European/Hispanic talent agent in Los Angeles.

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De Vargas was married three times: to actress Arlene McQuade, who starred on the 1950s sitcom The Goldbergs and was among the menacing group of evil people in the motel room with de Vargas in Touch of Evil; to actress and model Nome de Vargas, who worked on The New Treasure Hunt game show in the 1970s; and Diana de Vargas, who survives him.

In addition to Vanessa -- who has appeared on Design Wars and other HGTV reality shows -- and his wife of six years, de Vargas’ survivors include his sons Valentin and Anthony; another daughter, Marita; a sister, Marilyn; and a brother, Donald.

Watch the motel scene with de Vargas and Leigh (and McQuade, for that matter) from Touch of Evil below:

E-mail: Mike.Barnes@THR.com

Twitter: @mikebarnes4