I was first introduced to Afro–Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernández in the uneven, treacly 1950 drama Young Man With a Horn. It may have been top-lined by icons like Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day, but it is Hernández’s eyes — luminous, soulful, warm — that have singed themselves into my memory.
He has a somewhat thankless role as the mentor and father figure who nurtures Douglas’s character’s musical gifts, but his greatest strengths as an actor can be found within the folds of this role: the ability to reveal untold depths in characters positioned more as narrative devices than as full-fledged human beings, a palpable sense of warmth, and the determination to take up space even when he isn’t afforded any.
Hernández was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and had no formal education; the particulars of his biography are hard to glean. After coming to the United States, he reportedly moved through various careers as a carnival performer, boxer, vaudeville entertainer, and a voice actor for radio, which put his rich baritone to marvelous use. He performed in a variety of mediums — from all-black revues on Broadway to blunt noirs to sleek Hollywood productions — but remains curiously absent in larger conversations about the art of acting and reexaminations of black identity throughout film history. He died in his hometown in 1970, at the age of 74, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. It’s hard to sketch Hernández’s place in Hollywood. He was a recognizable character actor who earned a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year for the 1949 crime drama Intruder in the Dust, but he wasn’t spoken about fervently or exalted like Dorothy Dandridge, the marquee black star who cemented a place in Hollywood history.