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Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, 80; Comedic Entertainer and Character Actor Who Starred in Movies and TV

Times Staff Writer

Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, the irrepressible character actor and comedic entertainer who appeared in dozens of movies, including “The High and the Mighty” and “Rio Bravo,” has died. He was 80.

Gonzalez Gonzalez died of natural causes Feb. 6 at his home in Culver City, said his grandson, actor Clifton Collins Jr.

Gonzalez Gonzalez, a Texas native, first came to national public attention in 1953 when he appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.”

The diminutive young man proved to be irresistible comic fodder for the quick-witted Marx.

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“Pedro, we could do a great act together,” Marx said after Gonzalez Gonzalez sang a bit of “El Rancho Grande,” did a wildly funny dance demonstration and out-mugged the great comedian.

“What would we call our act if we went out together, the Two Tamales?” Marx asked.

“No,” a deadpan Gonzalez Gonzalez replied, “it would be Gonzalez Gonzalez and Marx.”

“That’s nice billing,” Marx said to the laughing audience. “Two people in the act, and I get third place!”

John Wayne happened to see Gonzalez Gonzalez’s show-stealing appearance and signed him to a seven-year contract with his production company.

From then on, he appeared in numerous Wayne films, including “The High and the Mighty,” “Rio Bravo,” “McLintock!,” “Hellfighters” and “Chisum.” He became one of the era’s few recognizable Mexican Americans on the big screen and television.

Over the years, he appeared in a string of movies, including “Strange Lady in Town,” “The Sheepman,” “Support Your Local Gunfighter” and “The Love Bug.” He was a guest star on such TV series as “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Gunsmoke,” “The DuPont Show With June Allyson” and “Burke’s Law.”

Gonzalez Gonzalez was no stranger to show business when he battled wits with Groucho Marx.

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One of nine children, he was born Ramiro Gonzalez Gonzalez in Aguilares, Texas, on May 24, 1925, to a Spanish dancer from Mexico and a Mexican American trumpet player from Texas.

Following Mexican tradition, he was given not only his father’s last name but also his mother’s maiden name. It just happened that they were the same. Friends later nicknamed him Pedro.

At 7, his parents pulled him out of school to join the family in entertaining migrant workers and residents of small Southwestern U.S. towns.

He later became the family’s break-out comedic performer. He sang, danced and played frying pans and water-filled bottles -- resembling a xylophone. He used mallets to play hubcaps -- from a pickup truck -- that were sewn into hidden pockets in his pants legs.

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“It was more fun to watch him tune up than anything else,” said Rex Allen Jr., son of the famous singing cowboy, who played county and state fair dates in Nebraska and Iowa with Gonzalez Gonzalez in the 1980s.

“He wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, but he was such a character everybody loved him,” Allen said. “He was a tremendous entertainer.”

Gonzalez Gonzalez was a driver in the Army during World War II, stationed in the United States. He had started out performing comedy in Spanish but had greater success after he learned English.

“I never learned to speak English too good, but the audience liked it like that,” he told the Arizona Range News in 1998.

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Because he left school early to enter show business, Gonzalez Gonzalez could neither read nor write, said Collins, who portrayed killer Perry Smith in the film “Capote.”

Gonzalez Gonzalez would memorize his lines by having his wife read scripts to him. And if a director wanted a script change on the set, his grandson said, “they would feed him the lines or give him the situation to improvise.”

Because he often played stereotypical Latino roles, had a heavy accent and frequently served as comic relief, Gonzalez Gonzalez was criticized in later years for being what one critic called the “Uncle Tom of Latino actors.”

“He just always wanted to work,” Collins said. “He played the roles that were available to him, and he did them well.”

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Actor Edward James Olmos, who spoke at the actor’s funeral Friday, said Gonzalez Gonzalez “inspired every Latino actor.”

“The guy was a tremendous personality,” Olmos told The Times. “He just really had a contagiousness about making people happy.”

Noting Gonzalez Gonzalez’s lack of education, Olmos said, “He tried like crazy to make us understand the importance of educating our minds.”

Collins was so proud of what his grandfather had accomplished as an actor and entertainer that in 1990, a few years after he began acting, he changed his professional name to Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez in honor of his grandfather.

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“I grew a little tired of people not knowing who my grandpa was and what a trailblazer he was,” said Collins, who reverted to using his last name in 2000 after his father died.

While growing up, Collins said, he heard all of his grandfather’s show business stories, including his memories of making a guest appearance with actor Robert Mitchum in 1956 on Jimmy Durante’s live TV comedy-variety show.

About a month ago, Collins obtained a videotape of the Durante show and played it for his grandparents in the living room of their home in Culver City.

The show was the ideal showcase for Gonzalez Gonzalez, who played the musical frying pans and hubcaps and sang and danced with Durante and Mitchum.

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“It was grandpa at his best, at the top of his game,” Collins said. “It was such a great joy for me as a grandson to see him watch that show for the first time. He just beamed from ear to ear.”

Gonzalez Gonzalez is survived by his wife of 62 years, Leandra; son, Ramiro; two daughters, Yolanda and Rosie; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.


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