Tony Martinez, 'Pepino' On 'Real McCoys', Dies At 82
By Dennis McLellan
Tony Martinez, the bandleader-turned-actor who played the farmhand Pepino on The Real McCoys and was one of the few Latino faces on network TV in the 1950s and early '60s, has died. He was 82.
Mr. Martinez died Monday of natural causes in a hospital in Las Vegas, according to his wife of 21 years, Myra.
Over four decades, Mr. Martinez played Sancho Panza in 2,245 performances of Man of La Mancha, including the national company tour of the Tony-winning musical in the late 1960s and two later national revival tours, all of which ended up on Broadway.
The actor joined the national Man of La Mancha company in 1967 and over the years he played opposite a dozen different Quixotes, including Richard Kiley, Jose Ferrer and Raul Julia.
"The best time he had was spent in the theater," his wife said. "That's the reason he came back so many times."
For millions of seasoned TV viewers, however, Mr. Martinez is best remembered for his role in The Real McCoys, the rural situation comedy about a West Virginia mountain family that moved to a farm in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
The popular series, which aired from 1957 to 1963, starred Walter Brennan as cantankerous Grandpa Amos McCoy, and Richard Crenna and Kathleen Nolan as newlyweds Luke and Kate McCoy.
Mr. Martinez played Mexican farmhand Pepino Garcia.
"He was just a natural, and he had this enormous sense of comedy timing," Nolan recalled last week. "He was surrounded by three people -- me, Walter Brennan and Dick Crenna -- who were experienced actors, and he was just right on the button."
Mr. Martinez came to acting by way of his music.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1920, he studied music in his native San Juan before moving to New York to study at Juilliard.
Mr. Martinez, who played five instruments and sang, formed his own small band in New York in the 1940s: Tony Martinez and His Mambo-USA.
He later studied acting and landed small parts in movies in the late 1940s and early '50s. He also appeared as himself, with his band, in the movie musical Rock Around the Clock.
Mr. Martinez and his band were playing at a club in Hollywood when he was discovered by TV writer-producers Irving and Norman Pincus, who were looking for someone to play the Pepino character.
"When they asked him to come in for the part, he didn't bother to call back because he thought it was a joke, and then they pursued him," Nolan recalled.
Nolan, who served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1975-80, called Mr. Martinez's casting "a major breakthrough in terms of minority representation on television.
"It may not have been the representation that we are seeking now, but it certainly was a breakthrough to have a major character on television that was not white, other than Desi [Arnaz in I Love Lucy].
"The thing about the Pepino character is that although he was constructed as a stereotype" -- he called Brennan's character "Señor Grandpa" -- "he was wise.
When there was conflict ... it was Pepino that would say, 'Well, you know, señor or señora, why don't you do such and such?' He was sort of the 'sleeper' resolver."
Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper.