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Portrait of celebrated actor and director José Ferrer, Class of 1933, unveiled at Princeton

Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications | Fri May 10, 2024

A portrait of the pathbreaking actor and director José Ferrer, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 1933, was unveiled on campus May 9 in a ceremony in Chancellor Green Rotunda.

Ferrer, who was born in Puerto Rico, was the first Latino actor to win an Academy Award, among numerous accolades on stage, in film, and on television over a long and illustrious career before his death in 1992. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1985.

“For six decades, José captivated audiences with his brilliant portrayals of unforgettable characters," Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said at the ceremony held to unveil the stunning portrait. "Today, I am delighted to be able to recognize his exceptional achievements and outstanding contributions in this spectacular manner."

The painting, by the renowned artist Luis Alvarez Roure, also born in Puerto Rico, is the latest addition to a series in the University's permanent art collection designed to illuminate the life and legacy of Princetonians who reflect the University’s broad diversity, part of the History and Sense of Place initiative

One of Jose Ferrer's sons, Rafael, poses in a similar way next to his father's portrait

José Ferrer's son Rafael takes a moment during the reception to playfully replicate his father's pose in the portrait, which will be hung in the Lewis Center for the Arts.

From Princeton to preeminence

Ferrer came to Princeton with the intention of studying architecture — but embraced his love of the arts by joining The Princeton Triangle Club, performing with another Princeton great, Jimmy Stewart, and playing piano in a jazz band, José Ferrer and His Pied Pipers. Eisgruber told the audience that even though Ferrer's classmates voted him "Most Entertaining" and "Wittiest," likely none could have imagined the exceptional career he would go on to pursue after Princeton.

He set out for Broadway and Hollywood soon after graduating, and the awards quickly followed. He garnered the first-ever Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance in the title role of “Cyrano de Bergerac” in 1947. Three years later, he reprised that performance in the film adaptation — and became the first Latino actor to win an Oscar.

In 1952, Ferrer won two Tony Awards: one for directing “The Shrike” (the award cited the fact that he also directed the Broadway productions of “The Fourposter” and “Stalag 17” in the same season) and for best actor in “The Shrike.” Along with his Academy Award for “Cyrano de Bergerac” in 1950, he was nominated in 1949 for best supporting actor for “Joan of Arc” and for best actor in 1953 for “Moulin Rouge.” The Directors Guild of America nominated him for outstanding directorial achievement in 1956 for “The Great Man.” He was also nominated for two Emmy Awards, in 1951 and 1956.

Brian Eugenio Herrera, associate professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and author of "Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in 20th-Century U.S. Popular Performance," noted that Ferrer was not only revered as an actor and director but also noteworthy “as a producer, as a writer, as an advocate for the arts, and in particular as a champion for the arts as a platform to engage the most consequential social issues of the day."  

His portrait will soon be hung the Lewis Center, where Herrera said he looked forward to student-artists and others encountering it, “to not only learn more about José Ferrer's extraordinary life and work, but also to remind us all that long before there was a Lewis Center for the Arts, defiantly interdisciplinary, socially engaged student-artists were discovering their paths at Princeton — students like José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintron."

A view of Cannon Green

Associate Professor of Theater Brian Eugenio Herrera (at the podium) spoke at the event to an audience that included Ferrer’s children and friends, artist Roure and his family, and members of the Princeton community, including faculty, staff and students.

‘A true community project’

Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, delivered the opening remarks at the event to a warm and enthusiastic crowd that included Ferrer's children and friends, Roure and his family, and members of the Princeton community, including faculty, staff, students.

"This ceremony is the result of a true community project," Minter said. "Although Princeton University cannot claim credit for José Ferrer’s remarkable achievements, we can showcase those achievements and offer Ferrer as an example to new generations of Princetonians."

The University began diversifying its portrait collection in 2017 with commissions honoring Toni Morrison and Sir W. Arthur Lewis, both Nobel laureates. Princeton announced in 2018 that it would commission eight new portraits to recognize individuals who, over the past 75 years, have been preeminent in a particular field, who have excelled in the nation’s service and the service of humanity, or have made a significant contribution to the culture of Princeton. Ferrer is the latest to be honored.

In his remarks, Eisgruber extended thanks at the event to the members of the CPUC Committee on Naming, including its chair, Beth Lew-Williams, professor of history. "There’s no doubt that the extraordinary individuals that they have chosen to honor over the past few years have each made an enduring contribution to the life of this University, to the nation, and to the world," he said.

One of Jose Ferrer's sons speaks at the podium next to his father's portrait

In remarks on behalf of the family, Ferrer's son Gabriel thanked the University, and educators more broadly, for the role they played in his father's life. 

'Eminence and transcendence'

After the portrait was officially unveiled — to a standing ovation — one of Ferrer’s sons, Gabriel Ferrer, an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles, shared remarks on behalf of the family.

"My father was about — I'll use some theology here — eminence and transcendence, and he found it in music and he found it in art and in painting, but when he got a hold of the theater, he used to say to me, even as a teenager, 'My church is the theater,'" Ferrer said.

He recalled that it wasn't until later that the meaning of his father's words — eminence and transcendence — was revealed: "The ability to touch the mystery where you gather a group of people into a space and you cross your fingers and you hope something bigger than all of you will emerge, and all of you will feel it and know that you're in a unique space, and the eminence of being one of the triggers of that, of allowing that to happen."

Ferrer also spoke to the role that the University played in his father's life. "Theater was his home...and that came from this place. Princeton gave him everything he needed and more to have a life in the theater. Thank you, Princeton. Thank you, educators, you do important work. I'm thrilled, on behalf of our family, to say thank you for this great honor."

President Eisgruber claps during the event

President Christopher L. Eisgruber applauds during the standing ovation the portrait received when it was unveiled at the ceremony.

In concluding the program, Eisgruber said: "José Ferrer left an indelible mark on this University and on the world with his enormous talent. With this portrait, his legacy at Princeton will endure and his story will continue to inspire new generations of talent."

In addition to Morrison and Lewis, portraits commissioned as part of the History and Sense of Place initiative include Bill Bradley, Class of 1965; Denny Chin, Class of 1975; Carl A. Fields; Elaine Fuchs, a 1977 graduate alumna; Robert J. Rivers, Class of 1953; Ruth Simmons; Sonia Sotomayor, Class of 1976; and Alan M. Turing, a 1938 graduate alumnus.

The portraits of Chin, Fields, Rivers and Turing were dedicated in a ceremony held in 2019. Bradley's portrait was unveiled in 2022, as were Simmons' and Fuchs' portraits.