Rubén Aguirre, famous for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho,” died Friday from complications of pneumonia. He was 82.
Aguirre, who had battled various complications of diabetes in recent weeks, was hospitalized in May, then released, his daughter Veronica told BBC World. She said he died at home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Aguirre was a stalwart of “El Chavo.” Although the show was aimed at adults, it was popular with children. Grown actors played the children depicted in the show’s odd world. They included Roberto Gómez Bolaños — known as “El Chespirito,” a giant among Latin American humorists — who portrayed the iconic character, El Chavo.
The adults-as-children device helped lend the screwball comedy an edge, and helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere.
Aguirre’s character was gentler than that of his oversized charges, however, and gave the show its sentimental heart. The tall teacher’s on-air romance with Doña Florinda, whose affections he sought, and his signature expression “ta-ta-ta” became classic tropes of Latino popular culture.
Aguirre’s rise to stardom was an unlikely one. He never studied acting. He went to school in agronomy. He once described himself as a once mediocre actor, who had ascended only through others’ help.
Born in 1934 in Saltillo in the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, Aguirre started his acting career near Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León.
He got his first breaks in radio, then migrated to television, taking bit parts. Pipo the clown was one of his early roles.
He was also a bullfighting reporter who delivered his nation’s first satellite broadcast of a Madrid bullfight. The attention won him a job in Mexico City, where he appeared in a children’s program called “El Club de los Millonarios” and another educational show.
From there, he met two actors from “El Chavo del Ocho” who brought him into Gómez Bolaños’ circle.
From that point forward, Gómez Bolaños included Aguirre in practically all his works. Gómez Bolaños had multiple programs in prime-time Latin American TV markets, including sitcoms and skit shows.
The role that landed him fame was that of Profesor Jirafales, the teacher who courted Florinda, the mother of his student Quico. His teacher character, tall and prone to thinking himself smarter than he was, became a central character.
The El Chavo series ended in 1980, but it lasted 12 more years in the form of various skits on Gómez Bolaños’ other programs. It endures in endless reruns throughout Latin America.
Aguirre eventually founded a circus that became his main livelihood for years. But his fortunes sank after a car accident seriously injured him in 2007. This cost him his savings, and forced him to put off retirement.
In his last years, he was so financially strapped that he interrupted hospitalizations because his family couldn’t pay for them. He confessed to his bitterness: “My strength fails me,” he said.
Jill Leovy of the Times and Sergio Burstein of Hoy Los Angeles contributed to this report.