The 14th stamp in the Distinguished Americans series honors José Ferrer (1912–1992), the multitalented actor, director, writer, musician, and producer whose career spanned the worlds of theater, film, television, and music.
José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, a district of San Juan, on January 8, 1912. At age six he moved to New York City when his father, an attorney, relocated the family from Puerto Rico. Always an excellent student, he passed the Princeton University entrance exam at age 15, but he was considered too young to attend and spent a year in a boarding school, Le Rosey, in Switzerland. He entered Princeton at age 16 and graduated with the class of 1933.
While attending the university he founded a dance band, “Jose Ferrer and His Pied Pipers,” that toured locally and in Europe. He also joined the Triangle Club, the university’s drama group. After leaving Princeton he did postgraduate work at Columbia University with the intention of becoming a teacher of languages. However, he had discovered his love of acting while in college, and in 1935 he made his first appearance on Broadway, a one-line part in the play A Slight Case of Murder.
His first starring role on Broadway came in 1940 when he was cast in the classic comedy Charley’s Aunt. In 1943 he portrayed Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello in one of the longest-running Shakespeare productions ever on Broadway. He directed three plays on Broadway in 1952: Stalag 17, The Fourposter, and The Shrike. Also starring in The Shrike, he won two Tony Awards at the 1953 ceremony, one for his lead role and the other for his direction of the three plays. Among the many other plays in which he appeared or which he directed or produced were Twentieth Century, The Silver Whistle, Edwin Booth, The Andersonville Trial, Richard III, The Girl Who Came to Supper, and Man of La Mancha.
During his long career Ferrer starred in several stage and screen productions of the Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac and was perhaps best known for this role. Written in the 19th century, the play concerns a brilliant poet and swordsman named Cyrano who falls deeply in love with his cousin, Roxane. His self-consciousness over his remarkably large nose prevents him from revealing his feelings to Roxane, and, instead, he helps another suitor court her. The role required Ferrer to don a prosthetic nose large enough to explain Cyrano’s shyness. He won the first Tony Award for Best Actor—in 1947, the inaugural year for the awards—for playing the lead on Broadway. He reprised his stage role on film in 1950, and his performance won him the Oscar for Best Actor, the first for a Latino. He remains one of the few actors to ever win a Tony and an Oscar for playing the same character on stage and on film.
He appeared in more than 60 feature films including Joan of Arc (in 1948, his first film), for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. In addition to directing numerous films himself, for five decades he acted for some of the top directors in Hollywood, including George Stevens, Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder, David Lean, David Lynch, and Woody Allen. Director John Huston chose Ferrer to portray artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Ferrer was nominated for a third Academy Award for the role. To play the diminutive artist, Ferrer, who was almost six feet tall, had to walk with his legs bound up behind him using specially designed kneepads. Asked which of his film performances he would most like to be remembered by, he replied, “My four or five minutes in Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t think I can get any purer than that. I don’t think I can attempt to accomplish more—while, at the same time, doing less.”
A renaissance man who spoke five languages fluently, Ferrer’s accomplishments extended to many areas of entertainment. He acted on radio, including the title role in the mystery series Philo Vance. A talented musician, he appeared in singing roles on the opera stage, co-authored the libretto for the 1958 musical Oh, Captain!, and composed the song “Love is a Beautiful Stranger” for the 1954 film Twist of Fate. Ferrer wrote for theater and television, and he directed and produced numerous plays, both on and off Broadway. For nearly a decade in the 1980s he served as president of The Players, the prestigious New York actors’ club founded in the 1880s, and in 1983 he also became the artistic director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. He appeared regularly on television, including an Emmy-nominated performance in his iconic role as Cyrano de Bergerac. Ferrer was nominated for a Grammy for narrating the 1958 children’s recording “Tubby the Tuba.” To complete an already impressive catalog of genres, he made an appearance in the ballet Coppelia, miming the role of Dr. Coppelius. These are but a very few examples of this gifted artist’s range.
Critics and peers alike admired Ferrer’s versatility, intelligence, and inventiveness. Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of the New York Times, wrote in 1948 that he was “the most able, the most stimulating and the most versatile actor of his generation in America.” Actress Helen Hayes said that he “could act superlatively in anything from classics to farce.” Citing the range of his Broadway roles, Gloria Swanson, who appeared with him in the play Twentieth Century, claimed in her autobiography that by the age of 38 he “had risen to be one of America’s few esteemed classical actors.” His ability to show emotion without intellectualizing was, according to producer Joshua Logan, his greatest strength on stage.
Many people in praising him mentioned his voice, described as sonorous, rich, and powerful. Morgan Freeman, to whom he was an idol, said “nobody had a voice like his voice.” In 1949, Ferrer received a medal from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, awarded to individuals who set a standard of excellence in the use of spoken language.
Throughout his life Ferrer was honored by various universities and colleges, receiving, among other awards, an honorary M.F.A. from his alma mater, Princeton University and an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico. Ferrer was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1981, and in 1985 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan, the first year the awards were given.
He died in Coral Gables, Florida, on January 26, 1992, at the age of 80.
The José Ferrer stamp is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.
Artwork based on a photograph © Turner Entertainment Co. A Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. All Rights Reserved.