The passing of Luis Aguilar, who died on 24 October 1997, marked the departure of one of the few remaining stars of Mexico's "Golden Age" of cinema. Known as "El Gallo Giro," Aguilar spent five decades working in films, from big-budget, prestige films like Juana Gallo with María Félix, to ultra-cheap, shot-on-video efforts such as El reloj de la muerte. Although mostly known as a singing charro, Aguilar also appeared in "civilian" roles, particularly after his "comeback" in the mid-80s.
Luis Aguilar Manzo was born in 1917 (some sources list 1918) in Hermosillo, Sonora. At the age of 21, he went to Mazatlán (on the Pacific coast) to attend a carnival, and liked the location so much that he decided to stay. "I did very well at fishing, I had my own boats and was about to acquire bigger and more sophisticated equipment..." However, he took a brief vacation and went to visit friends and relatives in the capital. Producer Raúl de Anda takes up the story:
"I met Luis Aguilar...[in Mexico City] at a dinner where a group of Sonorans were celebrating some special event. I saw him from afar and it seemed to me that he was a good sort, with presence and charisma. Then I learned he was the nephew of General Francisco Manzo, who had produced Heraclio Bernal with me. [Later]...I sent him a telegram saying I would pay his travel and expenses for him to come [from Guaymas, Sonora] to make a screen test to star in a film...Two days later Luis arrived at my office...after talking for a few minutes I asked him to sing. I loaned him a guitar that I had ready for the occasion and he began to play it...When he finished we applauded and he immediately asked me: 'When do we do the screen test?' I answered him: 'I already know how you look; you demonstrated your personality to me while we were chatting and you also sing very well. There's no need for a test, you're hired.'" [quoted in Raúl de Anda by Eduardo de la Vega]
Aguilar's first film was Sota, caballo y rey, directed by Roberto O'Quigley (another future star who debuted in this picture was Mercedes Izanda, better known as Meche Barba). Over the next decade, he worked almost exclusively for de Anda: in fact, the majority of Aguilar's film credits during his entire career have some connection with de Anda (or his children or relatives, the Gazcón and Trujillo families). Most of his early roles were as stalwart charros, updated versions of Raúl de Anda's own film persona, but with the added dimension of songs (and Aguilar was a more romantic screen figure than de Anda had been, so this aspect of his films was also emphasized).
With his strong jaw and somber gaze, Aguilar was well-suited to play taciturn (except for the occasional song), vengeful, even bitter characters. On the other hand, he was quick to flash his brilliant, confident smile, and was consequently frequently cast in comedy rancheras (and even "straight" comedies and musicals) as a happy-go-lucky womanizer.
In 1951, Aguilar was loaned out to appear in two films with Pedro Infante, A.T.M. (A toda máquina) and Qué te ha dado esa mujer?. Although he played a straight man to Infante's "jinx" character, Aguilar held his own and the two films were extremely successful. While these weren't Aguilar's first non-charro roles, the success of this pair of pictures allowed him to broaden his horizons somewhat, although he was still largely typecast in period films and/or pictures with rural settings.
As time went by, Aguilar began to balance his appearances in rancheras with Westerns. In the mid-1950s he teamed with producer Luis Manrique for several series in which Aguilar played masked Western heroes. Other producers followed suit, and Aguilar impersonated "El Jinete Sin Cabeza" (The Headless Horseman), "El Zorro Escarlata" (The Scarlet Fox), "El Látigo Negro" (The Black Whip), "El Ranchero Solitario" (The Lone Rancher), "El Halcón Solitario" (The Lone Falcon--he also was one of the "Five Falcons" in a two-film series, and one of the "Black Hawks"), "El Jinete Negro" (The Black Rider), "El Tigre Enmascarado" (The Masked Tiger) and even a masked rider without a specific name in La trampa mortal. In all, Aguilar donned a mask more than 20 times (although, admittedly, much of the mask-wearing was done by Fernando Osés and other stunt men).
Aguilar continued to play leads well into the 1960s, but several factors--his age, and changing tastes in films--resulted in a number of pictures in which Aguilar essentially played character roles, or shared top billing with other stars such as Antonio Aguilar (no relation), Javier Solis, Fernando Casanova, and Demetrio González. After 1974's Las tres compadres, Aguilar disappeared from the screen for more than a decade.
However, he was still active in other venues. While his vocal range and style could not be compared to Jorge Negrete or Pedro Infante, Aguilar did possess a robust baritone well-suited for belting out rancheras. He was not a prolific recording artist but did have a substantial career in nightclubs, fairs, palenques, and other live appearances (during the '50s and '60s, he had a significant number of "musical guest" roles in films starring other performers). But in the mid-1980s, Aguilar retired from singing in public. Perhaps coincidentally, this is when his second film career got underway.
Beginning in 1985, Aguilar became a familiar figure in telenovelas (such as Muchachita) and in films (beginning with Cacería humana and Ladrón, both produced by members of the de Anda-Gazcón-Trujillo dynasty begun by Aguilar's mentor, Raúl de Anda), this time as a bonafide character actor, his once-black hair now a silvery gray. Since rancheras were all but extinct, Aguilar found himself in rural action films, urban crime pictures, "straight" dramas, and even a few "sexy-comedies." Through them all he retained the same dignity and aplomb he had demonstrated since his debut.
Luis Aguilar married actress Rosario Gálvez in the 1950s--they appeared together a few times, although Gálvez was always rather far down in the cast lists as a supporting performer. Aguilar had previously been married to Ana María Almada, and he had three children from these two marriages: Luis Roberto, Fernanda, and Ana Luisa.
During the last years of his life, Luis Aguilar began to receive recognition as one of the living legends of Mexican cinema. In 1993, he was awarded the Best Co-Starring Actor Ariel, for his role in Los años de Greta; the same year, ANDA (the actors' union) presented the "Eduardo Arozamena" medal to Aguilar, for 50 years as a performer (he had received the "Virginia Fábregas medal--given for 25 years of uninterrupted performing--in 1972). At the Ariel Awards ceremony in 1996, Aguilar was one of the recipients of the life achievement "Ariel de Oro." In May 1997, his handprints were immortalized in cement at the Paseo de las Luminarias. On this occasion, Aguilar commented that it was important for an actor to receive such honors while he was alive: "Because that way one has the chance to enjoy them, and take this pleasure with him to the grave."
In 1997, Aguilar continued to work and make plans for the future. In the late summer he underwent a hernia operation, but his son Luis said "he recovered immediately," and had resumed his regular schedule of daily activities. However, early in the morning of 24 October, while he was asleep, Luis Aguilar Manzo suffered a fatal heart attack. His widow Rosario said, "He had always said to me jokingly that he was going to die while he was asleep, without pain...and his wish came true, since death surprised him while he was sleeping." However, as with Mario Moreno "Cantinflas," Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and other great figures of the Mexican cinema, Luis Aguilar will be immortal as long as his image on film continues to exist.
[This article originally appeared in The Mexican Film Bulletin. (c)1997 by David E. Wilt. email@example.com]