LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Walter Mercado was many things - an astrologer, a celebrity, a fashion icon, a queer hero and also a mystery. The Puerto Rican TV and radio personality died last year at the age of 87. He'd been a fixture in Latino households for decades, but what lay behind the flamboyant cape's flashy jewelry and theatrical delivery? And why did he disappear so suddenly from view at the height of his fame? The new Netflix documentary "Mucho Mucho Amor" looks at Mercado's life and legacy. And the filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch got unprecedented access to the man and his family and his foes. They join us now. Welcome.
CRISTINA COSTANTINI: Thank you. Thanks for having us. We're so excited to be here.
KAREEM TABSCH: Thanks. So wonderful to be with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I grew up watching Walter Mercado because I was a Hispanic kid in America in the 1980s, and he was everywhere. At the height, he was in hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking households in North America, across South America, Central America. It is hard to overstate how popular he was. What drew you to this story? Cristina, you start, and then Kareem.
COSTANTINI: Yeah, you know, I grew up watching Walter with my grandmother. And she would babysit us, and I would sit next to her. And although I didn't speak Spanish super well at that point, I would - was just fascinated by this person. I mean, the capes, the jewels, the hair - all of it just was so enthralling. And he would come into our homes every day and read our horoscopes and tell us that tomorrow was going to be a better day. And I think for an immigrant community, that was really important.
TABSCH: Yeah. I mean, I came up as a young queer person living in the suburbs of Miami, and Walter would come on television. I didn't know if he was a man. I didn't know if he was a woman. I didn't know anything about him, but I could sense his otherness. He was different in a way that I was different. You know, Walter's nonbinary gender expression was revolutionary and subversive. We had never seen anything like that on television, let alone Latino TV. He kind of touched our hearts and inspired, like, generations of folks to live their most authentic selves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In many ways, Cristina, this is an authorized biography, isn't it? It's a sympathetic and loving look at this man.
COSTANTINI: Yeah, you know, we couldn't have filmed without Walter's permission, but we think he didn't quite understand what a documentary was. You know, we would show up to film with him, and he would say OK, so when am I going to get the script for today?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, funny.
COSTANTINI: He used to say, well, what are my lines? Not exactly how a documentary works.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go back to who Mercado really was. He was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Let's listen to a bit of your documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “MUCHO MUCHO AMOR”)
WALTER MERCADO: It was a tsunami of art in Puerto Rico. Everybody was thinking about art. In the University of Puerto Rico, I began dancing classes. I just have a passion for dancing. And also, at the same time, I was acting at - having a lot of plays. After that, I became an actor in television.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He became an actor, he's saying there, and then sort of stumbled into astrology.
TABSCH: It was all rather accidental. I mean, Walter, you know, was always interested in astrology and in the occult and in the stars. But he was a telenovela star and was set to be making a guest appearance to promote a soap opera or a play that he was doing. And a guest on the afternoon talk show canceled last minute. And the host said, Walter, you're always talking about astrology off camera. Why don't you talk about it on camera? And he just kind of, off the cuff, started talking and giving kind of a horoscope right into camera. And the telephone lines at the station just lit up. And they told Walter, you need to come back and do this tomorrow, and then again the next day. Within three months, he had his own one-hour show on Puerto Rican television.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MERCADO: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the heart of this film is the tale of what happened to Walter Mercado late in his career, right? He disappeared from view when he was very famous, and we find out that his business partner, Bill Bakula, took the rights to his name, his brand. And Mercado had to fight a six-year legal battle where he could not perform. Kareem, you were also able to interview Bakula. He does not come off as a sympathetic man in this.
TABSCH: The thing is that Walter would never have achieved the levels of success he did were it not for Bill Bakula. Walter himself says this. You know, Bill saw this as a business transaction, that there were - you know, there were contracts, multiple of them, in triplicates that were very explicit in what Walter was agreeing to. You know, neither Bill or Walter had anything ill to say about one another. There was an immense appreciation and affection and respect for one another. Bill and Walter loved each other to the very end, although they never actually spoke again after the end of these legal battles.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you feel that you understood Walter Mercado at the end? You know, when the cameras were on, you could see that he was alive, but it seemed a little bit sometimes like a performance. Was he the same when the cameras were off?
COSTANTINI: You know, that's an interesting question. We've spent so long with him, and we had the same question, too. And we would always talk to the family about this. They told us, you've met the real Walter. That is him. And there's a story that I love, which is that when his grandniece was born - she was 5 weeks old, and they wanted to bring her into his bedroom. He could hardly walk at that point. And he wouldn't let the baby in, the five-week-old in, until he was in full makeup, and his hair was done because he wanted the baby to remember him as the Walter who he feels inside. And so he's a consummate performer. And he was elegant and fabulous no matter what he was doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, the last line of this film is so poignant. Let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “MUCHO MUCHO AMOR”)
MERCADO: Walter Mercado is a force of nature without the beginnings and endings. He used to be a star, but now Walter is a constellation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He said that speaking in advance of his eventual death, which happened in November of last year. What do you see as the legacy of Walter Mercado, Kareem?
TABSCH: For over 50 years, Walter came on our TV sets, showing us who he was, being proud despite the challenges. And every day, he imparted a message of love, that a life led with love would be a successful and happy one. And I think that that's the legacy that's going to continue for many, many years to come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini directed the new Netflix documentary "Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend Of Walter Mercado." Thank you both very much.
COSTANTINI: Thanks for having us.
TABSCH: Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.