Victor Millan is a pioneer Latino actor, born and raised in East Los Angeles, whose early work includes a recurring role as Zahir in the 1950s television series Ramar of the Jungle and who later gave memorable performances in such classic American motion pictures as Giant (working opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor) and Touch of Evil (playing opposite Charlton Heston and Orson Welles). Latinopia asked Millan, now in his nineties, about his journey from East Los Angeles to working on major Hollywood motion pictures in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when Latinos were virtually invisible in Hollywood.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
I was born in and raised in East Los Angeles. Around Evergreen. My mother was from Durango. They came here during the Mexican revolution and she worked as a seamstress. In grammar school I had a teacher who would read to us short stories and had students present their works, their own stories. So she encouraged me to read.
From grammar school then I went to Belvedere Junior High and that is where I really got the bug for acting as a result of Mrs. Harries interest in me and her encouraging me. We did not have drama classes as such but I did a play, a one-act play. So when I went on to Roosevelt High School I took the drama class there. It was taught by a Mrs. Draper and I became very interested in pursuing acting.
I was going to school at UCLA to study drama . While there, the casting director for the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy series asked me if I could ride a horse. And, of course, you want the job, so I told him I could. I got he part but now I had to learn how to ride! So I went to the stables on Los Feliz and I rode for two days straight. But the thing was I got so sore riding the horse that the day we were to shoot the scene. I was supposed to say good-buy to my sweetheart and then get on the horse and ride off with Hoppy.
So when we are ready to shoot I tried to get on the horse but I couldn’t because I was so sore from having rehearsed that I couldn’t get my right leg over to get on the horse. I couldn’t get my foot over the horse. So they had said not to stop the camera and to keep going no matter what. So because I couldn’t get my foot over the horse’s back–I was supposed to wave to my sweetheart. So I waved as I tried to get on the horse. It was an awkward and very funny position, It was so funny that it brought the house down, everybody laughed Hopalong Cassidy was very kind to me.
There was an open call for a movie called The Ring. I auditioned for it and got called back. When I finished the audition I overheard them talking about me. And a comment was made, that “he’s too clean cut to play a barrio kid.” But I was a barrio kid from East L.A.! The idea that I now had to have dirty pants and shirt. You know we Mexicans do take baths!
In the film there is a very important scene, sociologically speaking, because the storyline is that we come to Beverly Hills. We stop to get something to eat in a Beverly Hills restaurant and the waitress in the restaurant is treating us poorly, doesn’t give us a chance to order. And she calls the police and John Crawford was the actor playing the cop that comes to our table and asks us what are you guys doing here and tells us in essence to get out. And we do. And he makes sure that we leave. And it was a powerful scene because it dealt with prejudice.
Ramar of the Jungle was wonderful. One of the producer’s wife saw me on a TV show and they were looking for someone to play Zahir and they recommended me to go an interview. So I went to the interview and got the part as a result of the television work I had previously done. It was a lucky break being at the right place at the right time. And we ended up doing 13 episodes of Ramar of the Jungle.
I wanted to play this East Indian and he has an East Indian accent. So you have to be careful doing dialect. It can be so phony if not done right. I didn’t want to go overboard. So in preparing I learned how to play a dialect that wasn’t phony-baloney. It was exciting to work with John Hall and Ray Montgomery, who were big stars at the time, the were the leads. After that I started to get known by various casting offices and that made getting jobs easier.
Giant. First of all, it was a pleasure to work for George Stevens, a heavyweight in the motion picture industry. I remember getting a call from my agent to go to Warner Brothers for an interview for Giant. I went to the interview and George Stevens was shooting the wedding scene. And I waited for him to finish shooting the scenes–and waited and waited. Finally, he came by and said let’s see. The casting director took me on the set to meet George Stevens. I came in he looked at me and didn’t say a word. So I said to myself, boy I really missed this one! So I started to leave. But the casting director stopped me before I left and he said,”go to wardrobe.” I said , you mean you’re telling me that I have the part? It can’t be because he didn’t even know if I spoke English. He didn’t talk to me. The casting agent told me, You got the part. Just like that!
Later on as I worked on the film, when I asked about George Stevens not even talking to me, they said , he had already seen your work. Later I visited his office and he had drawings of all the characters in the movie And there was drawing there of me! So he knew already in advance. All he wanted to do was look at me on that day.
The climate in Marfa, Texas where we filmed, was in the summer time, and it was hot and humid. But yet the actors, all of them were uncomfortable but they were pleasant. The climate was conducive to work because of George Stevens. In the scene where you first meet my character is waiting at the train station. I am bringing a bouquet of flowers and am driving the car to pick up Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. And she is very gracious in the scene. And Rock picks up on that graciousness and he tells her in the scene. “You don’t treat these people this way.” And this is the first mention of the racial prejudice that you see in the film.
The Christmas party scene was filmed at the studio. In the scene I am proud with a touch of great dignity. I didn’t want to play him as the typical stereotype of what they considered a Mexican character to be. He enters the room, and Alex Scourby, played the grandfather, he played it with a gentleness and dignity and that is what I wanted to play as well. With dignity.
My beat in the funeral scene. I miss my son and love him. And I am thinking, dear God don’t let me cry and break down. Because to hold it back instead of letting it all hang out, is to me is much more powerful. It is a thread that is stretched that may or may not break at any time. So I played the scene as someone not wanting to break down. My beat, the goal of my scene as an actor.
After that I became well known and it was much easier to meet directly people. And also it was exciting.
Getting the part of Touch of Evil was very exciting, Universal in those days had wooden bungalows where producers and directors hug out in their offices. And I went to read for Orson Welles and I read for him. And he asked me to wait outside.
And I could hear the conversation because the wooden bungalows had no sound protection. And I could hear them arguing about casting me. And I hear my agent saying, I guess Welles quoted a price the agent says that his actor doesn’t work for that kind of money. And I am outside saying, God, I’ll do this for nothing. Working with Welles! So they argued there and I walked off with the part.
We went into rehearsal period. And its along scene, along take. Orson Welles wanted it in one take without any cuts. He had a disagreement with the studio because they wanted it with cuts but he wanted it with one take. We rehearsed it in Orson Welles home in the Hollywood Hills. So he blocked the scene in his big living room. And we rehearsed without the slap. So after a couple of days of rehearsal we are now ready to shoot. So I got used to him, Orson Welles, not hitting me. Well in the scene, if you see the scene, Orson Welles comes into the room and comes up to me and addresses me and says the lines and then he slaps me. Well he really did slap, he really did hit me and my teeth were rattled! I was worried about my jaw swelling up. I didn’t want to do another take. I thought this had better be good. And it was good! We did it in one take!