Tony Martinez, the bandleader-turned-actor who as farm hand Pepino on TV’s “The Real McCoys” was one of the few Latino faces on network TV in the 1950s and early ’60s, and who played Sancho Panza over a span of four decades in performances of tuner “Man of La Mancha,” died Sept. 16 of natural causes in Las Vegas. He was 82.
He appeared in 2,245 performances of “La Mancha,” including the national company tour of the Tony-winning musical in the late 1960s and two later national revival tours, all of which ended up on Broadway. Martinez first joined the national company in 1967 and over the years worked opposite a dozen different Quixotes, including the original’s Richard Kiley as well as Jose Ferrer and Raul Julia.
But he is still perhaps best remembered for his role in “The Real McCoys,” the sitcom about a West Virginia mountain family that moved to a farm in the San Fernando Valley.
The hit series, which aired from 1957 to 1963, boasted a cast that included longtime character actor Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna and Kathleen Nolan. Martinez played the Mexican farmhand Pepino Garcia, who, as a character on the show put it, “came with the house,” and played foil to Brennan’s cantankerous Grandpa Amos McCoy.
Martinez studied music in his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, before moving to New York to study at Juilliard. He played five instruments, sang and formed his own small band in New York in the 1940s, Tony Martinez and His Mambo-USA.
He later studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and landed small parts in a number of movies in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He also appeared as himself, with his band, in the movie musical “Rock Around the Clock,” starring Bill Haley and the Comets.
He was discovered for TV by writer-producers Irving and Norman Pincus while Martinez played with his band on the Sunset Strip, and they approached him about the “Real McCoys” role.
Nolan, who served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1975 to 1980, called Martinez’s casting “a major breakthrough in terms of minority representation on television.”
Martinez, who wrote music for a handful of movies in Mexico in the 1970s, served as executive director of Artists Variety Co. in Puerto Rico, a government-sponsored program to help citizens enter the entertainment field, in the mid-1970s.
He was also executive director of the Institute of Motion Pictures, the government film commission in Puerto Rico, in the early 1980s.
He is survived by his wife of 21 years, Myra; five children; two grandchildren; and a sister.