Ramón Novarro was a Mexican of Hollywood who achieved fame as a 'Latin lover' in silent films.
Born José Ramón Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico, he moved with his family to Los Angeles, California to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913. A second cousin of the Mexican actress Dolores del Río, he entered films in 1917 playing bit parts, and supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, the actor and director Rex Ingram and his wife, the actress Alice Terry, began to promote him as a rival to Rudolph Valentino and Ingram suggested he change his name to 'Novarro'. From 1923, he began to play more prominent roles. His role in Scaramouche (1923), brought him his first major success.
In 1925, he achieved his greatest success in Ben-Hur, with his revealing costumes causing a sensation, and Novarro was elevated into the Hollywood elite. With Valentino's death in 1926, he became the screen's leading Latin actor, though ranked behind his MGM stablemate, John Gilbert, as a model lover. He was popular as a swashbuckler in action roles, and was also considered one of the great romantic lead actors of his day. Novarro appeared with Norma Shearer in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and appeared with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore in 1928. He made his first talking film, starring as a singing French soldier, in Devil-May-Care (1929). Novarro starred with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari in 1932 and was a qualified success opposite Myrna Loy in The Barbarian (1933).
Almost as big a star as Valentino at the height of his fame, Novarro's almost androgynous male beauty - not helped by the heavy make-up and overly dramatic acting demanded by the silent cinmea - has led him to becoming largely forgotten and overlooked. He certainly looks a lot 'gayer' and more effeminate through the lens of history than he did at the time of his fame.
When Novarro's contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935, the studio did not renew it. He continued to act sporadically, appearing in films for Republic Pictures, a Mexican religious drama, and a French comedy. Later in the 1940s, he had several small roles in American films. He was considered for a role in the pilot television series The Green Peacock with Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, after the demise in 1958 of their CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. The project, however, never materialised. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s, but Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in hit cowboy series The High Chaparral as late as 1968.
At the peak of his success in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was earning more than US$100,000 per film. He invested some of his income in real estate. His Hollywood Hills residence is one of the more renowned designs (1927) by architect Lloyd Wright. After his career ended, he was still able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Richard Halliburton, also a celebrity in the closet, and was romantically involved with journalist Herbert Howe, who was also his publicist during the late 1920s.
Novarro was murdered by two brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson (aged 22 and 17 respectively) whom he had hired from an agency to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex. According to the prosecution in the murder case, the two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden in Novarro's house. The prosecution accused them of torturing Novarro for several hours to force him to reveal where the nonexistent money was hidden. They left with a mere twenty dollars they took from his bathrobe pocket before fleeing the scene. Novarro allegedly died as a result of asphyxiation, choking to death on his own blood after being brutally beaten. Popular legend reports that the object used to murder Novarro was a black lead dildo modelled on Rudolph Valentino, given to him by a former lover, but this is a Hollywood urban legend.
The two brothers were later caught and sentenced to long prison terms, but were quickly released on probation. Both were later rearrested for unrelated crimes, for which they served longer terms than for their murder conviction.
Novarro is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. Ramón Novarro has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6350 Hollywood Boulevard.