Fernando Guillén exits stage left

Socialist actor who helped modernize Spanish theater dies at the age of 80

Elsa Fernández-Santos
Fernando Guillén: "I'm a red, and I really mean a red and not just a leftist."
Fernando Guillén: "I'm a red, and I really mean a red and not just a leftist." BERNARDO PÉREZ

When actor Fernando Guillén, who died in Madrid on January 17 at the age of 80, gave his last theater performance in 2007, he chose a play with which he deeply identified: La valse des adieux by the French writer and communist Louis Aragon.

Guillén used to say that Aragon's text had many points in common with his own personal contradictions, and with his existential doubts regarding the ultimate meaning of life. "I always tried to be a coherent and committed person, even though, out of necessity, I didn't always make the kind of theater I wanted," he said at one of the many tributes to his career in theater, film and television he attended.

"Aragon as an author shares an affinity with me, since I'm a red, and I really mean a red and not just a leftist," he said during the period when he was saying goodbye to acting.

Suave, seductive tenderness


In 1998, I seem to remember, Fernando Guillén received a well-deserved tribute to his movie career at the Lorca Film Festival. When he got up on stage, all his children were there with him. Visibly moved, they said beautiful things about their father. And I thought: "You must have done something right, Fernando, to deserve so much love, so admirably expressed and conveyed."

His relations and his time spent with Gemma Cuervo only add to this image of a good, loving, intelligent man.

There's no doubt about it: we are losing one of the greats of the stage, of the silver screen, of television. For six decades, he left an indelible mark through memorable performances and clear, forceful personal attitudes and ideological stands. And always with that suave, seductive tenderness that he displayed wherever he went...

We cannot forget the risks he took with his theatrical productions during the latter Franco years, nor his masterly cinematographic maturity, nor his forceful television presence.

His beautiful, intimate, lucid, emotional goodbye to the stage inside the Teatro Español, where he recited a text by Louis Aragon, only confirmed the depth of a man who willingly shunned superfluous pomp and episodic celebrations. There he stood, alone with nothing more than his words, his ideology and a beautiful demonstration of his love of theater.

We have learned much from people like him, and we will continue to learn. His lessons are both artistic and human, and while the former are great lessons indeed, even greater are the lessons of an honest man who was always true to himself.

Mario Gas is an actor and theater director.

"I am very happy to present a text that is so deeply involved with so many issues that are vital to human beings, like death, suicide, disappointment, failure, and other things that have moved me... Probably, without a text like this, I wouldn't have retired," he told EL PAÍS.

Great words were never belittled in Guillén's mouth, and that made him an exceptional actor. But at age 75 he was tired, as he readily admitted. Like a true gentleman, Guillén always played down his own importance, yet he was always more than a mere performer of classic plays.

He joined the college theater troupe, Teatro Español Universitario (TEU), when he began studying law at Madrid University, a decision that would change the course of his life. The TEU, which trained some of Spain's greatest actors, put him on the stage to perform modern classics such as Miguel Mihura's absurd comedy Tres sombreros de copa or Alfonso Sastre's Death Squad.

Guillén was a pioneer in the modernization of Spanish theater. He actively contributed to the opening up of culture under the Franco dictatorship in the late 1960s, when he and his wife, the actress Gemma Cuervo, premiered work by the likes of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.

His long partnership with playwright, director and actor Adolfo Marsillach resulted in Spanish versions of Julien Green's L'ennemi, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Arthur Miller's After the Fall and Albert Camus' The Misunderstanding, the work that Guillén considered one of the pinnacles of his own career. Coincidentally, the play will return to the CND National Drama Center thanks to the efforts of Guillén's daughter, the actress and TV presenter Cayetana Guillén Cuervo.

Guillén's face became well-known thanks to his work in some of the best-known Spanish movies in recent history. He had roles in Pedro Almodóvar's All About my Mother, Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He also worked with Carlos Saura on The Dark Night and collaborated with other major Spanish directors. All of these movies were improved by his restrained, upright presence and wonderful voice.

"He was a superb actor who came from the kind of theater that I so enjoy making movies with," said filmmaker Gonzalo Suárez. "I will miss him as a friend and as an extraordinary person, and given my devilish dialogues, also as an actor with the ability to deliver them."

Guillén used to say that to be happy all he needed was a book, his dog and the sun. The long illness that gradually took his life deprived him of everything except the one thing he was most attached to, his family. His three children -- Fernando and Cayetana, both actors, and Natalia, a lawyer -- were with him until the end, as was his wife Gemma Cuervo, who returned to his side after years of separation to accompany him during his last days.

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