Times Staff Writer

Fernando Rey, one of the screen’s most distinguished international actors, is best known as the suave drug kingpin in “The French Connection” and as Luis Bunuel’s alter ego in the master’s final films. In “Padre Nuestro,” at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex and the Grande downtown, he plays a cardinal with an illegitimate family. Yet, according to him, it has not stirred up a controversy in his native Spain, where it has been a big success.

“If you don’t go against dogma or insult the Virgin Maria, there’s no problem,” he explained the other day during a brief stay at the Chateau Marmont. “It’s permitted to attack cardinals and priests. I think we may have more of a sense of humor about these things than you do.”

Nearing 70--and before the cameras for almost half a century--Rey has been aptly described by “French Connection” producer Phil D’Antoni as “the last of the Continental guys. They don’t make them like that anymore.” Handsome, bearded and beautifully tailored, Rey is in fact that increasing rarity, a true gentleman. He has that ease of manner and the polished actor’s charm that bring to mind Cary Grant and Vincent Price.

Rey has often been the supporting player rather than star in his 158 films, so it is a pleasure to watch him portray this dying cardinal who leaves Rome to return to his native village, trying somehow to “legitimize” those he had long abandoned for the priesthood. “I think it was a beautiful script,” he said. “The director (Francisco Rigueiro) and the other writer (Angel Fernandez Santos) spent almost a year on it. To get such a good script is rare for me--I’m not a Hollywood star and have not many choices. But with this script I felt that sense of surprise that happened for me only with Bunuel.


“I have to fight against the cardinal’s ‘devilishness'--he destroys everything in trying to make amends. I had to make that believable. If you can make a strange idea like the cardinal’s indiscretion work, everything that happens afterward you can believe.”

Rey is the most active and peripatetic of actors--he flew in from Sydney (with a stopover for the Houston Film Festival), where he played a lord of the British admiralty in an Australian TV movie about Captain Cook, and has several more films lined up, including a role especially written for him in a film of the opera “Tosca,” to be shot in his home region of Galicia. Although Rey clearly loves his profession, he had planned to be an architect--until the Spanish Civil War intervened. He and his father, an army colonel, fought on the side of the Loyalists, which brought his father a death sentence, later suspended. Rey had had a privileged childhood and youth but was destitute by the end of the war in 1939.

“I became a movie extra just to get money to eat--and to lose myself as a face in the crowd,” he explained. “I never had that ambition to be an actor, but it was like a chain reaction. One day a director asked me if I could say a line, and I did it. I had a ‘parenthesis’ feeling in the first years--that one day the parentheses would be closed--but, here I am.”

Multilingual, he was soon dubbing foreign films, starting with replacing the voice of Tyrone Power in “Lloyds of London.” Eventually, Rey would dub Laurence Olivier in all his Shakespearean films. “I know Olivier as an actor better than he does himself!” said Rey. “This dubbing was very good training, since I had never been in an acting school. Olivier is such a tricky actor! I learned so many tricks for the camera from him. I think it was in ‘Richard III’ I noticed that he covered his face with his hand, and when he moved it, he had another expression. Wonderful!


“I really hate dubbing. I did Olivier very carefully. Sometimes it took three hours to prepare for three minutes on screen. It’s just impossible: How do you make ‘Mi reino por un caballo!’ sound like ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ Forgive me, Laurence Olivier and William Shakespeare, for insulting you!” (Nevertheless, Olivier once sent Rey an inscribed photograph of himself.) Although Rey said his voice is now too familiar to Spanish audiences to do much dubbing anymore, he was persuaded to dub Don Juan in a TV production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which was part of a package of Shakespearean productions bought by RAI (Italian television) from BBC-TV. His voice will also be heard in the recent British animated feature, “When the Wind Blows,” when it opens in Spain, replacing the voice of John Mills.

Of all his roles, Rey’s favorite is the one that brought him perhaps the most praise, that of Don Lope, the elderly guardian obsessed with his beautiful ward (Catherine Deneuve) in Bunuel’s chilling 1970 study of old age, “Tristana.” “Don Lope was larger than life. I had to face this monster at the studio every day,” recalled Rey. It was his performance as Don Lope that brought him the role of the sinister Charnier in “The French Connection.”

Had Rey not been so busy he would have made seven rather than four films for Bunuel, who had wanted him for his “Simon of the Desert,” “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “The Milky Way” as well as the four he did make--"Viridiana,” “Tristana,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “That Obscure Object of Desire.”

“He always wanted me to play dirty old men,” said Rey with a chuckle. “But we established a relationship that was very easy for me. Bunuel was so relaxing. Normally, when a film is finished, everybody is tired; with Bunuel you had the impression you had done nothing. I’ve seen his crew cry at the end of shooting.


“However, you had to be prepared for him to ‘destroy’ you as an actor in the sense that he forced you to do strange things--like pick up a cup of coffee very slowly or do something with your hands that seemed unnatural. It’s against you in a way. Then we had many rehearsals for movement, but never for acting, in front of the camera. People thought he loved to go too far, but he actually was always afraid of doing that.”

Not surprisingly, Rey found Orson Welles, for whom he played Northumberland in “Chimes at Midnight,” quite different. “Orson was baroque, a fantastic human being, always burning with ideas. His problem was that he was a perfectionist, which was terrible for the producer. He was too much a perfectionist, but wonderful? Oh, yes! His daughter brought his ashes to be buried on the farm of the bullfighter Antonio Ordonez. So maybe Orson in spirit is in Spain.”

In 1960 Rey married the Argentine actress Mabel Karr, an elegant blonde, and they have a son in medical school and a daughter who is married to a retired soccer star and has four children. At this stage of his life Rey, who has residences in Madrid and Ibiza, is not looking for starring roles. “My ideal is John Gielgud--I don’t mean to compare myself to him as an actor!--who takes small roles in good pictures. But I really am a frustrated golfer. My dream is not to play King Lear; I’d rather be Jack Nicklaus.”