Today’s Google Doodle honors Cantinflas on the 107th anniversary of his birth.
The attention given the icon, who died in 1993, is a reminder of a different time in Mexico-US relations.
The late mid-century was an era when a Mexican star could appear at the side of an American leader who relied on him to secure votes.
Mario Moreno, Cantinflas’ real name, was born in a Mexico City slum in 1911. In his youth, he earned money as a prizefighter and worked as a circus acrobat.
By the time he was 26, he found himself in films, on his way to becoming one of Mexico’s most cherished comedic movie actors. At the peak of his career in the late 1950s, Cantinflas was earning more than $1.5 million a year and was said to be the world’s highest-paid comedian.
Also, at the height of his fame, Cantinflas was courted by political power brokers both in Mexico and across the border. He was associated with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson even before the Texan took office in 1963 and close to Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Mexico’s president from 1964 to 1970.
Cantinflas was often seen as somewhat of a propagandist for the PRI, Mexico’s longtime ruling party, especially in the later decades of his career.
But he never forgot his roots. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Cantinflas promoted the cause of the poor by adopting an underdog persona, el peladito,”who always, in the end, manages to endure his tribulations,” as the New York Times wrote upon his death in 1993.
His fame and influence was never more clear than on Nov. 6, 1961, which was Election Day in the United States. Cantinflas shared a car in San Antonio, Texas, with then-vice president Johnson as they campaigned successfully for Henry Gonzalez, who would become the first Mexican-American to win a seat in Congress. Gonzalez would serve in office for the next 37 years.
Four years later, Johnson returned to San Antonio as president. Cantinflas was there again—along with a crowd estimated to be 30,000-strong at a shopping center — when Johnson said:
With us on that memorable day here in this same place in November 1961, was a very old and very dear friend of mine and a good friend of yours: Cantinflas. He spent the weekend with me and in my home last night, and he came here today to join us again in this reunion. All the world knows Cantinflas as one of the greatest and one of the best loved comedians of all times. But we know him best as a man whose heart always goes out to his fellow man. We know him as a man who believes in human dignity. We know him as a man who has done more to further good relations between the United States and our neighbor to the south, Mexico, than most professional statesmen have done.
Johnson would give Cantinflas special mention again when he toasted Diaz Ordaz at a White House state dinner in 1967:
When our friends come here, they come, symbolically, into every American home. And no one could be more welcome in the American home tonight than our neighbor, Mexico.
I should warn you, Mr. President, that there is in our midst a countryman of yours–whose popularity is such, that if he were to run for public office in either country, he might retire both of us to private life. It is our good fortune that Cantinflas prefers to make fun of presidents, rather than run against them. When he does appear on the political scene—as Henry Gonzalez can testify—the effect simply is overwhelming.
With all due respect to Señor Cantinflas and his fellow actors, Mr. President, I think you and I know that there is at least one significant difference between being a president in the movies and actually having the job. As one of our own American comedians, the late Will Rogers, used to say frequently: “Spinning a rope is always a lot more fun when your neck ain’t in it.”
Mr. President, the United States and Mexico are showing the world what good neighbors really can accomplish.
Our common frontier extends almost 2,000 miles. It is without any military defenses. Millions of our citizens cross it each year.
With information from Quartz