Jungle Boogie: Some Reflections on Nick Stewart, Victor Millan and the “Minority” Actor

A scene from the 1958 film Touch of Evil with (from left) Orson Welles, Victor Millan, Joseph Calleia, and Charlton Heston.



Taking a break from writing on Christmas Eve, I watched a few episodes of an old jungle adventure series called Ramar of the Jungle, something that baby boomers probably remember as a live-action staple of their children’s television programming (along with Our Gang and The Three Stooges comedy shorts). The show was similar to Johnny Weissmueller’s Jungle Jim series, the actor’s post-Tarzan exploits that kept him in the jungle in western clothes instead of a loincloth.

Jon Hall, famous for his lead role in John Ford’s Hurricane, played Ramar, also known as Tom Reynolds, a physician bringing modern medicine to the African jungle, complete with pith helmet and backpack. It has all the usual sort of racist tropes that one would expect in a show like this, the “good” and “bad” “natives,” the “good, paternalistic” Whites and “bad, greedy” Whites, the atrocious imitations of an African language which mostly sounded like versions of “ooga booga” and “Kawasambe.” Hollywood mumbo jumbo, jungle gibberish, as my sisters called it. (South African trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela released an album in 1966 with the humorous title, The Americanization of Ooga Booga that featured a barefoot Masekela in the middle of a jungle wearing a suit, holding a fedora and attaché case.)

As a child, I enjoyed the show; most of the Black children I knew did also. We were all a bit embarrassed by the African “natives,” who looked very much as if a casting call went out on Central Avenue in Los Angeles and these fellows got caught up in the net. Many could have used a bit of exercise. I hardly remember a Black woman being featured as a member of a tribe but I am sure on occasion there were some “native” women but the men as spear chukkers, witch doctors, and chiefs were the primary dramatis personae. Perhaps I was a bit embarrassed and ashamed, suffering from what can be called “The Little Black Sambo Syndrome” or enduring art experience that makes you feel inferior because of your race, but where else on television at the time would I see so many Black people who were instrumental to the plot of a show.

When I became an adult, I appreciated seeing several significant Black actors on the show including Woody Strode, Archie Savage, Milton Wood, and Nick Stewart, who was part of the regular cast playing the role of the guide, Willie-Willie. It is hard to believe that one particular episode featured James Edwards (as an evil witch doctor), Rex Ingram (as a chief), Bernie Hamilton, and Juanita Moore (as a damsel in distress). That is amazing! Such a gathering of Black talent to such a shabby end!

Stewart had been Lightnin’ in the TV series, Amos ‘n’ Andy but was fired. In an interview later in life, he seemed decidedly ambivalent about the Willie-Willie role but then again Black actors were often so harshly criticized by other Blacks for subservient parts that it is no surprise that he felt that he had to, in some way, note the racism of the situation by remarking on the dominance of Jon Hall’s “White savior” character. It might be noted that Hall’s character also eclipsed that of his White co-star Ray Montgomery who played Professor Howard Ogden. He was truly just a sidekick and Stewart, from a purely acting point of view, had the far more interesting role, even if only the White actors held the rifles. I did not watch a few episodes of the show purely from nostalgia or a desire to recapture my childhood but because I was curious about how the acting made a show like this work.

Watching one particular episode, I was pleasantly reminded of Mexican-American actor Victor Millan (stage name), born in East Los Angeles, who played Ramar’s East Indian guide in the episodes that took “place” in India, courtesy of a lot of establishing footage that combined National Geographic with Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Millan was a pioneer Latino actor for whom Ramar of the Jungle was a big break in his career, despite the stereotypes and limitations of his role. In an interview he gave not long before he died, he described the experience of working on Ramar as “wonderful” and notes how hard he worked to have a good Indian accent, how important that was to him as an actor. Millan had some of the same challenges as a Black actor in dealing with certain types of “minority” roles, but he also had some advantages in getting more roles. Latino actors were often all-purpose “minority” actors, playing East Indians, Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, any of a wide swath of so-called “people of color.” Mixed-race Jamaican-born actor Frank Silvera (who even played Whites) and Italian American actor Frank DeKova, for example, were highly skilled at playing a range of “minority” roles. So did Mexican actor George Lewis who played Don Diego de la Vega’s father in the 1950s Disney television series, Zorro. This helped Millan in his career. (It strikes me as a bit odd that Black people and others have come to embrace the term “people of color” when the conception did not arise from any sort of resistance but is rooted in racism and how Whites lumped together anyone who was not White. It is the worst kind of binary, rooted in colonialism and racism.)

From Ramar, he went on to significant roles playing Mexican characters in George Stevens’s epic Giant and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (the latter a far more profound and persuasive testament to the idea of defunding the police than most of the leftist rhetoric one hears today). Here are critically immortal movies, definitive films, that assure Millan will be remembered over the long haul, even if he is underappreciated now. He was lucky to be a cast member of such films, but it was also a sign that he was good, that he was a compelling supporting actor. (He said that the slap Orson Welles gave him in the movie was quite real and unrehearsed. He was afraid his face would swell and ruin the possibility of redoing the scene, but it was done in one take.) He was awfully good in both movies.

As a fan (or a sucker) for old television western, I remember a Millan performance well from a 1957 episode of Tales of Wells Fargo. It was called “The Lynching.” In it, Millan’s character, a non-English speaking Basque who just emigrated to the United States, is accused of kidnapping and molesting a little White girl. The town is set to lynch him but his innocence is finally established when the little girl hugs him. (Frank DeKova plays Millan’s character’s brother.) There was an earnestness, a well of sincerity that made Millan’s performance touching. He came across as more innocent than the child he was accused of molesting. The episode was a nice liberal plea against bigotry, characteristic of the time and not uncommon for television westerns of the Cold War era, usually dramatized with Native American or Asian characters. For instance, a 1961 episode of the popular television western, The Rifleman, called “The Queue,” dramatized bigotry against a Chinese laundry man and his son but who were accepted, even Americanized in the end. “The Lynching” is not necessarily my favorite episode of Tales of Wells Fargo but it is one of the most interesting, in no small measure because of Millan’s appealing performance.

Millan was a fine actor who became an acting teacher and dean of the Theater Arts department at Santa Monica College.

It was good to see him in Ramar of the Jungle, to be reminded of his work. It was good even to see Ramar after all these years. For some things, to borrow a phrase from a popular song, “it’s good to live it again” even in a different life.