Tito Guizar, one of the first Mexican actors to star in Hollywood, acting alongside Bob Hope and Roy Rogers, has died at age 91.
Guizar died Friday in San Antonio, where he was visiting relatives for the Christmas holidays. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Guizar had a seven-decade entertainment career in Mexico and starred in at least 40 films. His presence on screen was still highly prized by directors of TV soap operas in his native land. His early work in radio and film north of the border helped open the path for his countrymen in the lucrative U.S. entertainment market.
Born Federico Guizar Tolentino in Guadalajara, Guizar became Mexico's first singing cowboy on the big screen. He achieved commercial success in 1936 with "Alla en El Rancho Grande," the film that kicked off the success of Mexico's film industry.
"Starting with 'Alla en El Rancho Grande,' Mexican cinema won't exist without songs," said Carlos Monsivais, a journalist and movie critic in Mexico. " 'Rancho Grande' becomes our 'Paradise Lost.' The image of an idyllic and kind Mexico, which the corrupt city wants to destroy."
Like many of Mexico's well-known folkloric vocalists of the 1930s, Guizar wanted to become an opera singer and traveled to New York to study with the great masters of that era.
Though he was a good tenor, Guizar's teachers told him that he had "a better shot at singing Mexican ranchera songs than in the competitive world of opera," Guizar told The Times earlier this year.
With songs like "Solamenta Una Vez," "Cielito Lindo" and "La Cucaracha," his popularity spread to the United States, where he started hosting a New York-based national radio show called "Tito Guizar and His Guitar."
His program, which followed one hosted by Bing Crosby, was a showcase for his musical artistry, as he performed traditional Mexican songs and opera classics.
Tall, with Rudolph Valentino-like looks, Guizar played himself in "The Big Broadcast of 1938," starring Hope, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Lamour and Martha Raye. In 1947, he appeared with Roy Rogers in films and on the TV Western "On the Old Spanish Trail."
Rogers and Guizar became friends, often visiting each other's families in the United States and Mexico, Cheryl Barnett, Rogers' daughter, recalled earlier this year.
Barnett said that as a 9-year-old she would gaze upon Rogers and Guizar "as two of the most dashing, handsome gentlemen I had ever seen."
With his charismatic persona, Guizar helped Hollywood open up more diverse role for Mexican actors, who often portrayed only bandits or peasants.
Through the 1940s Guizar was one of the first Latino performers to get billing in such top U.S. venues as Carnegie Hall, the Waldorf Astoria and the Hollywood Bowl.
In the early 1950s, Guizar had a television program in Los Angeles on KTTV. Toward the end of the decade, he returned to Mexico to star in the sequel to "Alla en El Rancho Grande.' Guizar continued acting in films and performing until 1990, when his wife of 57 years, Carmen, died.
"He went into depression," said Lilia Inclan, Guizar's daughter, who lives in Los Angeles.
Guizar came out of retirement in 1994 when the owner of Mexico's most powerful media corporation, asked him if he would accept a part in the "Marimar" telenovela, said entertainment writer Ramon Inclan, Guizar's son-in-law.
"Marimar," a slick prime-time soap opera, starred Thalia, one of Mexico's most popular actresses during the 1990s. Guizar played Thalia's grandfather in the soap. Viewers wept when Guizar's character died during an arson fire.
Working in soap operas helped rekindle Guizar's interest in acting, he said in July. He would be a mainstay in Spanish-language soaps of the late 1990s, which included the popular "La Usurpadora" and 1999's "El Prilegio de Amar."
Guizar enjoyed working along younger actors and said he followed their careers. He also kept abreast of new young Latino talent like Ricky Martin, who gained U.S. crossover appeal six decades after Guizar began having success among U.S. audiences.
"It nurtures me in a spiritual way," Guizar said of their successes.
Guizar suffered injuries in a fall earlier this year. But he kept performing and acting, mostly in Mexico.
In July, the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles honored Guizar on his 70 years in show business. Though Guizar walked with the aid of a cane, he remained as lucid and joyful as ever at age 91. He delighted fans and friends at that ceremony with his operatic version of "Rigoletto." Some of those present were moved to tears when he performed a capella "Alla en El Rancho Grande."
Despite his long history in show business, Guizar once said that neither the past nor future mattered. What is important, he said, is the present: "The past is dust, the future . . . who knows?"