Debonair Romero dies at 86

Cesar Romero, the urbane, self-dubbed “Latin from Manhattan” who charmed audiences in smooth character parts in the 1940s and later starred as the Joker on the “Batman” TV series, died Saturday. He was 86.

Romero died at 9:10 p.m. at St. John’s Hospital & Health Center, spokesman Gary Miereanu said Sunday. Romero died of complications related to a blood clot after being hospitalized with severe bronchitis and pneumonia.

His swarthy Cuban looks were leavened by a self-mocking smile, which made Romero the perfect romantic foil in scores of motion pictures such as “Weekend in Havana,””The Devil Is a Woman,””The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend” and “That Lady in Ermine.”

“When I started in motion pictures in 1934, they said I was going to be the next Valentino,” he recalled in 1984. “I was never a leading man, and very seldom did I do a picture where I got the girl. But I was saddled with the label because I had a Latin name. My background is Cuban, but I’m from New York City. I’m a Latin from Manhattan.”

Born in Manhattan on Feb. 15, 1907, Romero was the son of Cuban immigrants. His mother had a career as a concert singer under the name Maria Mantilla. “My grandfather, Jose Marti, was the liberator of Cuba,” Romero said in 1984. “The Cuban war of independence was planned in my grandfather’s house.”

Romero’s initial career was as a dancer, though he had never formally studied. He was discovered in the Montmartre nightclub in Manhattan by producer Brock Pemberton, who was looking for a replacement for the hit stage comedy “Strictly Dishonorable.” He segued into starring roles insuch plays as “Stella Brady,””All Points West” and “Social Register.”

A screen test for MGM landed him a role in “The Thin Man,” which eventually led to a three-year contract with Universal, who loaned him out for such films as “The Good Fairy” with Margaret Sullavan and “Love Before Breakfast” opposite Carole Lombard. His portrayal of Koda-Khan in the Shirley Temple film “Wee Willie Winkie” led to a 14-year contract at 20th Century Fox. His tenure there was interrupted only by World War II; he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in the Pacific.

Fox gave him a starring role in the successful Cisco Kid Western serial, as well as “The Little Princess” and “Tales of Manhattan” with Ginger Rogers. Romero also appeared in many musicals, including “Coney Island.”

In the ’50s, Romero worked as a freelancer in such films as “Vera Cruz, “”Ocean’s Eleven,””Donovan’s Reef” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”

He also appeared regularly on TV, guesting in series such as “Playhouse 90” and “Wagon Train.” During the 1954-55 season he starred in an adventure series called “Passport to Danger” and later did a syndicated travelogue, “Cesar’s World.”

But he is perhaps best known for his Joker in the “Batman” TV series that starred Adam West.

Romero never married. He explained in 1984: “How could I, when I had so many responsibilities? Could I tell a girl: ‘Let’s get married and you can come and live with my father, my mother, two sisters, a niece and a nephew’? I have no regrets.”

Romero is survived by a brother, three nieces, a nephew and three great-nephews.

Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Arthritis Foundation.

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