Monday 21 May 2018

Obituary: Abel Fernandez

Abel Fernández had a 45-year film career
Abel Fernández had a 45-year film career

Abel Fernández, who has died aged 85, was a half Yakaii Indian and half Mexican professional boxer who became a successful Hollywood character actor.

From modest beginnings Fernández went on to have a 45-year film career, co-starring opposite Robert Mitchum in Second Chance (1953), Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall (1956) and Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill (1959).

He also had something of a cult following on the popular ABC television series The Untouchables (1959-1963), set in 1930s Prohibition-era Chicago, for his role as Federal Agent William "Bill" Youngfellow, right,a character based on William Jennings Gardner, a real-life Native American member of the Untouchable Federal Squad. "The show was the biggest thing on TV at the time," Fernández recalled. "Even John F. Kennedy was said to be a fan of mine."

Abel Gonzalez Fernández was born on July 14 1930 in Los Angeles, California. His mother was a Yakaii Indian, and his father was a Mexican. Abel was the youngest of a large family and his mother died giving birth to him.

At the age of 16 Fernández enlisted in the US Army, serving at the end of the Second World War in the 11th Airborne as a paratrooper. He also boxed regularly, often sparring with the heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.

He went on to win the middleweight boxing championships in the Asiatic forces aged 19 and continued in the sport after his discharge from the army in 1950, winning the Los Angeles Golden Gloves tournament. An almost fatal injury inflicted on an opponent in the ring put paid to his boxing career, however, and so he decided to become an actor instead.

Fernández made his screen debut playing a boxer in Second Chance (1953). Next came the Robert Ryan and Jan Sterling B-movie potboiler Alaska Seas (1954) and, following a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a minor role as an Indian warrior in Rose Marie (1954). He also appeared in the comedy-western Many Rivers to Cross (1955).

By the mid-1950s, Fernández had left MGM and was often finding himself typecast as "the Indian", "Medicine Man" or "Apache" in such titles as Strange Lady in Town (1955), with Greer Garson, for Warner Bros. He took a leading role as Mangas, the son of an Apache chief who wages war on a disgruntled settler (Peter Graves) in Fort Yuma (1955), and another Apache in The Last Wagon (1956), with Richard Widmark and Susan Kohner. He was Chief Firebird, an Indian boxer who refuses to throw a match in The Harder They Fall. A flurry of TV shows followed, including Cheyenne; The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin; 77 Sunset Strip; Wagon Train; Gunsmoke; and Bonanza.

On the big screen he appeared in the Bud Boetticher western Decision at Sundown (1957) with Randolph Scott, and the Film Noir The Tijuana Story (both 1957). His career continued with The Untouchables, but also television shows such as Batman and The Big Valley and small roles in films such as Quicksilver (1986) and Buster Bedroom (1991), a black comedy about a woman who is obsessed with silent film star Buster Keaton.

In 1981, however, despite much hype, plans for a reunion movie featuring Fernández and other original Untouchables cast members failed to come to fruition when Robert Stack declined to reprise his role as Eliot Ness.

His last appearance on screen was in 2002 in an episode of a Mexican soap opera. Thereafter he dedicated much of his time to producing films for disadvantaged children.

Abel Fernández was married twice and is survived by four children. He died on May 3.

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