Julio Oscar Mechoso, whose prize-winning Coral Gables High recitation of a snarling monologue from the film “Patton” presaged a long and successful Hollywood career playing gangsters, brutal cops and even demons, died of a heart attack Saturday at age 62.
His death unleashed a wave of grief among Hollywood’s heavyweight Hispanic actors and directors, who regarded Mechoso as a renaissance man of multiple talents.
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“Julio was not just another actor,” said his friend, college classmate and frequent co-star Andy Garcia. “He was a supremely talented craftsman.”
Mechoso got his first TV role not long after graduating from FIU on the Miami-made sitcom “¿Qué pasa, U.S.A.?” and would eventually appear in dozens of films and TV shows, from “Miami Vice” to “Seinfeld” to “Cane.”
Possessed of a Medusa-like scowl and an intensity so fierce that he often burst into tears during table reads of scripts — friends teased him with the nickname lloracito, the little one who cries — Mechoso was stereotyped early in his career as a tough-guy character actor. Even when he played a seemingly benign role, the image was so hard to shake that when the now-defunct WB network was preparing to shoot “Greetings From Tucson” — one of the first comedies featuring Hispanics since the days of Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy” — its bosses didn’t want producer Peter Murrieta to let Mechoso read for a role.
“They told me, ‘This guy is a great gangster, but he has no comedy credits,’ ” recalled Murrieta on Sunday. “I said, ‘That’s because there’s no Hispanic comedies, dudes.’ He came and he was hilarious playing this gruff Mexican-American dad, the funniest guy at the read by a mile. We cast him and he was great.”
Startling as Mechoso’s comedic talent was for Hollywood executives, it wasn’t a bit surprising to his friends or family.
“He was a very funny guy,” said his daughter Melinda. “He was an entertainer. If you look at his old school pictures from Miami, the people around him always have big smiles, because he’s doing something to make them laugh. He loved do that. He would never let anyone else talk at the dinner table — he had too many stories to tell.”
Mechoso’s performance during the single season of “Greetings From Tucson” vastly widened the range of roles available to him, but his first love remained drama. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami (his family operated Little Havana’s Mechoso Store, which sold clothing and appliances), he got bitten by the acting bug during high school, when his performance of George C. Scott’s infamous profane speech from the opening of the film of “Patton” (“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country”) won a prize. For the next four years, his aspiring actor friends at what was then Miami Dade Community College and later FIU would beg him, “Do Patton!”
“It was just amazing,” recalled Garcia. “It was Patton, but it was also Julio. He had this way of inhabiting a role.”
As intimidating as Mechoso could be on-screen, he was perhaps even more ferocious in the way he prepared for his roles. His family listened in awe as he ranted and raved during impromptu rehearsals in the bathroom at home. Murrieta once entered Mechoso’s dressing room on the “Greetings From Tucson” set and found entire scenes — annotated with thoughts, intentions and worries about how he was going to play — scrawled on the walls.
“He was an actor with a capital A,” Murrieta said.
Added veteran producer Juan Carlos Coto, who cast Mechoso in three TV series and worked with him in several others: “He was a utility player who could do anything, be a lead in a sitcom like ‘Greetings From Tucson’ and then a vicious Mexican narcotrafficker in ‘Kingpin’ and then a quirky demon who works part-time as a limo driver taking souls to Hell in ‘From Dusk Till Dawn.’ He played them all with such spirit and such life that you just couldn’t top watching him.”
Mechoso also had several writing projects in the works, including a script about his teenage days running with the rough-and-tumble crew at the old Mutiny Hotel, the favored hangout of cocaine cowboys and other Miami flora and fauna. (He even met Linda Ruiz, his future wife, at the hotel disco. “It’s a very ’80s love story,” his daughter Melinda laughed.)
And he was a talented guitarist and singer, which could take even his friends by surprise. Producer-director Robert Rodriguez, who worked with him in five films and TV series, was confounded one day when they were shooting the cop drama “Matador” on the streets of Boyle Heights, a hard-bitten Los Angeles suburb. Mechoso, seeing a guitar, asked to borrow it.
“He took my guitar and played the hell out of it,” Rodriguez said. “He sang and danced around for the whole crew right there in the streets of Boyle Heights. … That sight and sound became my favorite memory of Julio, him thrilling us with further proof of his breathless talent and his giving heart, while singing into the night. That image is all I can see right now.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Mechoso’s birthplace as Miami.