We highlighted Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas the last two days, but it’s fair to say that Gilbert Roland paved the way for them.
Question: How is Roland best remembered? For his movie roles or for his offscreen conquests? Both, we like to think.
His Hollywood career started in silent films in the mid-Twenties opposite such stars as Clara Bow. Much to his amazement — Roland never viewed himself as an over-abundantly gifted actor — he subsequently starred and costarred in more than 140 movie and TV titles spanning nearly six decades.
He continued working until 1982, a dozen years before he died in at 88 of cancer.
Although he generally portrayed “Latin,” few people knew he was Mexican (although Roland would sometimes say he felt more Spanish than Mexican). He’d chosen his screen name by combining the names of his two favorite stars, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland.
Roland actually was born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in 1905 in Juarez, and had initially intended to become a bullfighter. But his good looks propelled him to a career in silent films, and he had enough talent to successfully make the transition to talkies.
He also had the ability and good sense to return to Mexico in the early 30s to hone his craft there before returning to the States and resuming his career. Roland presented himself believably as quite a lover, and had had affairs with almost all of his leading ladies.
He married Constance Bennett in 1941, but they divorced four years and two children later. By the late 1940s he was bouncing between leading and supporting roles. He scored hits in such films as director John Huston’s We Were Strangers costarring with Jennifer Jones and John Garfield in 1949, and director Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952, costarring with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner.
Frank accidentally stumbled on a Roland performance in Fox’s 1953 diving adventure, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. Frank’s attention was initially directed to costar Terry Moore, with whom he had an adolescent infatuation. But Roland’s amiable, confident screen presence — as ‘Mike Petrakas,’ the Greek patriarch of a young Robert Wagner — pretty much stole the show.
Roland was nearly 70 when he met contemporary stage and screen actor Frank Langella, who recalls their encounter in his superb memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them. The actors were in Tucson, Arizona filming the 1974 TV movie, The Mask of Zorro.
Sitting together outside his production-set trailer, ‘Gil’ announced to Langella: I fucked them all, you know.
The younger actor (a mere 36 at the time) wrote: (Roland) then proceeded to give me a rundown of his specialties, detailing the sexual peccadilloes of every female star I’d grown up with….He was so matter-of-fact and businesslike about it that I began to laugh hysterically as he described sex acts the way one man might tell another the order in which to oil, polish, lube, and wash his car.
The more I laughed, the more explicit he became, not once cracking the slightest smile …he regaled me with scenes of sexual acts in which he costarred with some of the most famous women in the world.
Roland, wrote Langella, was grand, imperious and totally engaging; appearing always to have just flung back a tent flap after ravishing a maiden and heading for his horse. I just loved every minute I could grab with him.