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Subject: Tony Martinos, one of the first Latino actors on TV

September 16
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Date Posted: September 21, 2002 10:48:07 EDT

Tony Martinez, the bandleader-turned-actor who played the farm hand Pepino on "The Real McCoys" and was one of the few Latino faces on network television in the 1950s and early '60s, has died. He was 82.

Martinez died Monday of natural causes in a hospital in Las Vegas, according to his wife of 21 years, Myra.

Over four decades, Martinez played Sancho Panza in 2,245 performances of "Man 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.

The actor first joined the national "Man of La Mancha" company in 1967 and over the years he played opposite a dozen different Quixotes, including Richard Kiley, Jose Ferrer and Raul Julia.

"The best time he had was spent in the theater," his wife said. "That's the reason he came back so many times."

For millions of seasoned television viewers, however, Martinez is best remembered for his role in "The Real McCoys," the rural situation comedy about a West Virginia mountain family that moved to a farm in the San Fernando Valley.

The popular series, which aired from 1957 to 1963, starred Walter Brennan as cantankerous Grandpa Amos McCoy and Richard Crenna and Kathleen Nolan as newlyweds Luke and Kate McCoy.

Martinez played the Mexican farmhand Pepino Garcia, who, as a character on the show put it, "came with the house."

"He was just a natural, and he had this enormous sense of comedy timing," Nolan recalled this week. "He was surrounded by three people--me, Walter Brennan and Dick Crenna--who were experienced actors, and he was just right on the button."

Martinez came to acting by way of his music.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1920, he studied music in his native San Juan before moving to New York to study at Juilliard.

Martinez, who played five instruments and sang, 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.

Martinez and his band were playing at a club on the Sunset Strip when he was discovered by TV writer-producers Irving and Norman Pincus, who were looking for someone to play the Pepino character on their new sitcom.

"When they asked him to come in for the part, he didn't bother to call back because he thought it was a joke, and then they pursued him," Nolan recalled.

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.

"It may not have been the representation that we are seeking now, but it certainly was a breakthrough to have a major character on television that was not white, other than Desi [Arnaz in 'I Love Lucy'].

"The thing about the Pepino character is that although he was constructed as a stereotype"--he called Brennan's Amos McCoy character "Senor Grandpa," for example--"he was wise.

"When there was conflict with the grandpa character or the Kate and Luke characters, suddenly, out of nowhere, it was Pepino that would say, 'Well, you know, Senor or Senora, why don't you do such and such.' He was sort of the 'sleeper' resolver."

Nolan said she and Martinez kept in touch over the decades, but she hadn't seen him until the taping of a "Real McCoys" reunion special two years ago for TNN, which was airing the series.

"He looked terrific, and we were very happy to be there together," she said, adding that Martinez "was obviously very proud" of having played Pepino on the show "and it was very much a part of his life."

That was apparent when she later watched Martinez drive off in his car, whose license plate read: PEPINO.

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 executive director of the Institute of Motion Pictures, the government film commission in Puerto Rico, in the early 1980s.

In addition to his wife, Martinez is survived by five children: David of Las Vegas; Renee Wilson of Cedar City, Utah; Christian of Los Angeles; Lessette of New York City; Kimra of Sedona, Ariz.; two grandchildren; and a sister, Angelica Montanez of Virginia.

Funeral services are pending.

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