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01 August 2016

Francisco Rabal

Francisco Rabal (1926–2001) was one of the best known and most important Spanish film actors. He evolved from a handsome leading man into an impressive character actor, who starred in three masterpieces directed by his close friend Luis Buñuel.

Francisco Rabal
Vintage postcard.

Romantic Leads and Rogues


Francisco 'Paco' Rabal Valera was born in Águilas, a small mining community in the Spanish province of Murcia, in 1926. His father, Benito Rabal, worked in the mines while his mother, Teresa Valera, ran a mill. In 1936, after the Spanish Civil War broke out, the family left Murcia and moved to Madrid.

Young Francisco had to support his family as a street salesboy and a worker in a chocolate factory, while studying in the night time at the Colegio Nuestra Señora del Recuerdo. Later on he worked as assistant electrician at Estudios Chamartín, a film studio.

While working at the studio, Rabal became interested in acting and began taking onscreen work as a bit player. Dámaso Alonso and other people advised him to try his luck with a career in theatre. During the following years, he got some roles from theater companies such as Lope de Vega or María Guerrero.

It was there that he met actress Asunción Balaguer. They married and remained together for the rest of Rabal's life. Their daughter, Teresa Rabal, is also an actor, while his son Benito Rabal is a director.

In 1947, Rabal got some regular jobs in the theatre. He used his full name, Francisco Rabal, as stage name. However, the people who knew him always called him Paco (Paco being the familiar form for Francisco) and 'Paco Rabal' became his unofficial stage name.

During the 1940s, Rabal began to act in films as an extra. In 1942 he played his first bit part in La rueda de vida. Rabal joined the theater company Compañía de Isabel Garcés, and he participated at the editing of Diario íntimo de la tía Angélica (José María Pemán, 1946).

Gradually his parts increased. On stage, he obtained a big success in 1952 with his part in the Spanish version of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. In 1946 he also had started to work as a supporting actor in such films as La pródiga/The Prodigal Woman (Rafael Gil, 1946).

It was not until 1950, however, that Rabal was first cast in speaking film roles. He played romantic leads and rogues in such films as La honradez de la cerradura/The honesty of the lock (Luis Escobar, 1950).

Rabal performed memorable stage parts on various occasions at the Festival de Teatro Romano at Mérida: in 1954 in Oedipus Rex, in 1955 in Julius Caesar, in 1956 Thyestes and in 1960 again in Oedipus, always under the direction of José Tamayo. But Rabal’s career moved more and more towards film.

His masculine good looks and easy charm quickly made him a popular leading man in Spain. In 1953 he received his first film award for La guerra de Dios/I Was a Parish Priest (Rafael Gil, 1953). The award was a Silver Lion at the Festival of Venice. That same year he won the award for best interpretation at the Festival of San Sebastián for Un camino a la derecha/There is a Path to the Right (Francisco Rovira Beleta, 1953), a crime drama about the black market set in a gritty Barcelona and its docks.

The following years he played in various successful films, including several leads in Italian films such as Prigionieri del male/Revelation (Mario Costa, 1955) with May Britt, La grande strada azzurra/The Big Blue Road (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1957) opposite Yves Montand, Marisa la civetta/Marisa (Mauro Bolognini, 1957) starring sexy Marisa Allasio, and the historical action drama Gerusalemme liberate/Jerusalem Liberated (Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, 1957) with Sylva Koscina.

RABAL, Francisco_Sin datos k
Spanish postcard. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona.

RABAL, Francisco_Photo Wagner
Spanish postcard. Photo: Wagner. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona.

Anticonventional Priest


In 1958 Francisco Rabal went to Mexico to play Father Nazario, an anticonventional priest who attempts to live a pure and honest life strictly according to Christian principles, in Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín (1959). Nazarín was Rabal’s definitive breakthrough as an international film actor. The two struck a long lasting friendship, and Rabal would star in three major films by Buñuel.

Rabal played another important role opposite Silvia Pinal and Fernando Rey in Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961). The script was initially approved by the Spanish authorities with a few minor changes. They had no opportunity to view the finished film until it played at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix. Nevertheless theSpanish authorities were sufficiently horrified by what they saw to ban the film.

Rabal’s measured performance came from years of stage acting training. The role made him for decades one of the most important actors of the Spanish cinema. Another major role was that of the intellectual fiancé of Monica Vitti’s Claudia in the Italian classic L’eclisse/Eclipse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962).

Interesting was also his part as the father confessor in La Religieuse/The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966), a faithful adaptation of a bitter attack on religious abuses by the Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot.

Rabal’s third film with Buñuel was Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967), starring Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli. Rabal incarnated revolutionary Che Guevara in El 'Che' Guevara (Paolo Heuchs, 1968).

American director William Friedkin thought of Rabal for the role of the French villain in The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971). However, he could not remember the name of 'that Spanish actor', and his staff hired by mistake another Spanish actor, Fernando Rey. Friedkin discovered that Rabal did not speak English or French, so he decided to keep Rey for the now legendary film. Later Rabal did work with Friedkin in the much less successful but Academy Award-nominated Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977), a remake of the cult classic Le salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953).

In Italy he appeared in Luchino Visconti's segment La strega bruciata viva/The Burnt Alive Witch of the anthology film Le Streghe/The Witches (1966) starring Silvana Mangano and Il deserto dei tartari/The Desert of the Tartars (Valerio Zurlini, 1976) with Jacques Perrin.

RABAL, Francisco_Photo Bosio Press (Roma)
Spanish postcard. Photo: Bosio Press. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona.

RABAL, Francisco_Sin datos
Spanish photo. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona.

An Old and Invalid Film Director


As Francisco Rabal grew older, his waist thickened and his hairline receded, but he seized the opportunity to play less glamorous and more challenging roles. It is even said that Rabal's best performances came after Francisco Franco's death on 1975. His performance as the old Azarías in Los santos inocentes/The Holy Innocents (Mario Camus, 1984) won him the Award as Best Actor at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival (ex aequo with his compatriot Alfredo Landa who featured in the same film).

Other memorable films in the 1980s were La colmena/The Beehive (Mario Camus, 1982) with Victoria Abril, and Camorra (Lina Wertmuller, 1984). In 1989, Rabal played an old and invalid film director in Almodovar’s Átame!/Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodovar, 1989) starring Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas.

On television, he played in Cervantes (Alfonso Ungría, 1981), the painter Francisco de Goya in the mini-series Los desastres de la guerra/The disasters of the war (Mario Camus, 1983), San Pedro de Alcántara in another miniseries Teresa de Jesús/St. Teresa of Avila (Josefina Molina, 1985), and he starred as the retired bullfighter Juncal in the exciting TV series Juncal (Jaime de Armiñán, 1989).

Rabal got many honours. In 1989, he was a member of the jury at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival. At the 1991 Montreal Film Festival he was named best Actor for L’Homme qui a perdu son ombre/The Man Who Lost His Shadow (Alain Tanner, 1991). In 1993 he received a gold medal from the Spanish film academy.

In 1999 he scored another late-career triumph with his acclaimed performance as the old Francisco Goya in Goya en Burdeos/Goya in Bordeaux (Carlos Saura, 1999). For this role he won the most prestigious Spanish film award, the Goya Award. And he is the only Spanish actor who received a honoris causa doctoral degree from the University of Murcia (1995).

Rabal's final film was the horror film Dagon (Stuart Gordon, 2001), based on short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. The film was dedicated to him: "Dedicated to Francisco Rabal, a wonderful actor and even better human being."

Rabal died in 2001 from compensatory dilating emphysema, while on an airplane travelling to Bordeaux, when he was coming back from receiving an Award at the Montreal Film Festival. One week later he was supposed to receive the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastian film festival.

His grandson, actor Liberto Rabal, accepted the honorary award on behalf of his grandfather, honoring his name in what was an emotional reunion of all Rabal’s old friends and colleagues. Throughout his career, Francisco Rabal had worked on more than 200 films in Spain, France, Italy, Hollywood and Mexico.


Trailer for Viridiana (1961). Source: Kinetoskop – Internetowy Magazyn Filmowy (YouTube).


Trailer for Sorcerer/Wages of Fear (1977). Source: Jonno 773 (YouTube).


Trailer Átame!/Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1989). Source: The Cult Box (YouTube).


The original US Trailer from Dagon (2001). Source: Deathdealeus1984 (YouTube).

Sources: Keith F. Hatcher (IMDb), AllMovie, Encyclopædia Britannica, Wikipedia (English, Spanish, Italian and German), and IMDb.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Talk about tall, dark & handsome!