Marie Gomez as Perlita in The High Chaparral
by Jan Pippins
Smartly dressed, hair neatly coiffed, make-up impeccable and smile dazzling, Marie Gomez looks like a movie-star even when examining papayas at the Farmers’ Market. “I know you’re somebody,” declared the fruit-stand owner. “I know it!”
Warm and funny, Gomez is a very special somebody. Although she portrayed sexy, manipulative Perlita Flores and other women of dubious virtue, Gomez is devoted to friends, family and charity-work. If you can’t imagine Perlita as a staunch Presbyterian who feeds the poor and helps orphans, read on. That’s why it’s called “acting”.
“I was raised in a good Christian family. I believe in God. I go to church,” she says. “My father always told us to help the ones who are less fortunate. He was the best human being I’ve known in my life. He had a great heart for the poor. My mother was like this, too.”
Her father did not want her to become an actress, but she dreamed of Broadway. “When I became of age, I said, Papa, this is what I want. I’m going to New York.”
He replied gently but firmly, “Listen, Marie. You’re a big girl. I cannot stop you, but one thing I’m asking you: Make us look good. Don’t bring shame.”
She lived with her sister while singing and dancing on Broadway, then left New York for Hollywood. First came small parts in films like 1965’s Marriage on the Rocks, in which she met Roberto Contreras. Her break-out role came in 1966 with The Professionals, a critically acclaimed film in the vanguard of new, gritty Westerns. Directed by Academy Award winner Richard Brooks, it starred Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Claudia Cardinale. Capable character actors like Contreras had brief, meaty scenes. Relative newcomer Gomez played Chiquita, revolutionary and ex-lover of demolitions expert Bill (Lancaster). Making the movie was grinding hard work. Gomez dug in, passing up parties to rest and prepare for the next day’s shoot. “When a man, an actor, has been out late, drinking too much, he looks bad, they say, what a good actor! When it’s a woman, they say, what happened to her? She looks terrible!”
Video Clip from High Chaparral episode Champion of the Western World
The Professionals garnered several Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe nomination for Gomez, but more people recognize her for her reoccurring role on The High Chaparral than for her films. Whether in Sweden, Spain or at the local market, Gomez meets fans. People love Perlita, especially men. “Because she is what she is, you accept her or not,” says Gomez. “But she wanted to get married. Perlita loved the clothes. She thinks if she gets married, she’s going to wear that long white dress!”
Marie Gomez treasures working on Chaparral, choosing brilliant Champion of the Western World as her favorite episode. It spotlighted Gomez’ comedic flare, but she was initially afraid she couldn’t carry it off. Encouragement came from always-supportive Henry Darrow, who calls her a professional and an instinctive actress. “He said, you can do it. Any emotion, you can do it.” She ad-libbed the stand-out scene where Perlita shows off her new hat to furious Victoria and hat-thief Manolito.
Her heavily ad-libbed scenes with Darrow were great fun, but she enjoyed working with everybody. “I appreciated them very much. Roberto Contreras! Oh, what a funny guy he was!” she says. “Linda Cristal is a very good actress. She does scenes so beautifully. I liked Cameron Mitchell. What a guy! He was a pro.”
She remembers Leif Erickson as “always a gentleman”, but not everyone was so restrained. Says Darrow, “Guys were always hitting on her, so she isolated herself.”
“This is my problem in this business, when you have a certain look,” responds Gomez, who refused to do movies with nudity, including one with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. “People I don’t even know, they say they have dated me, people you would not believe would lie like that.”
Lies are an unpleasant part of show-business and she recalls an incident when she was guest-starring on Chaparral. An early-to-bed, early-riser who had to be on the set at five a.m., she was in her room when a raucous group of non-actors next door disturbed her sleep. Wearing a robe that covered her from neck to toe, she knocked on the door and asked them to be quiet. When the story broke, it said Gomez came to their room in a negligee. “That’s not my style, not me at all!” says appalled Gomez and Darrow agreed. “He said, but I saw you, Marie! With the robe, the high neck!”
“Henry was always very respectful. He is not only a fine actor, he is a man with style,” she says. “As an actor, he is in the same class as Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin. But he has more joy on the screen than they do.”
However, onscreen kisses between Perlita and Manolito, like kissing Burt Lancaster, were just part of the day’s work. “I don’t like it, because you have lots of people looking at you. And it is so professional, that kiss. I don’t feel a thing.”
But Marie Gomez feels deep compassion for the needy. For eleven years, she spearheaded a relief project for Mexican orphans, delivering busloads of food, toys and clothing. Today, she volunteers for The Lord’s Lighthouse of Hollywood Presbyterian Church. As part of this cross-cultural ministry, she commits time each week to serving hot meals, donating clean clothing and providing spiritual support to hundreds of impoverished men, women and children.
When not helping the less fortunate, energetic Gomez is busy acting, socializing with friends and family and exercising to stay fit. As for ambitious Perlita Flores, Gomez believes it’s possible that Perlita became the madam of a successful Tucson bordello, her wardrobes bursting with pretty dresses and hats from Paris.
© Jan Pippins 2009