‘Moustached mourner’: San Juan native Pete Leal looks back on acting career with no tears

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Agapito “Pete” Leal

When it was released last fall, the dark comedy “Moving On” starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin garnered positive reviews.

But locally, there was a different excitement, about the actor billed as “mustached mourner” — San Juan native Agapito “Pete” Leal.

Leal found success in film and television roles beginning in the 1970s.

“I’m doing very well for an 85-year-old fart,” Leal said, his charisma and humor immediately evident.

Speaking on the phone from his home in Palm Springs, California, Leal reflected on the journey that has led him from working the fields with other migrant workers to sharing the screen with some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

“We were migrant workers every summer after school,” Leal said. “My family would go up north to look for crops. My brother was very good at finding crops. We did onions, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, bell peppers, okra, cherries, peaches, and a whole bunch of cotton in Arizona, California, Texas, and Oklahoma.”

Leal was the youngest of nine siblings. He recalled being undecided with his future when he was young.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Leal said. ”I was in high school, and I was a — what they call nowadays — a cholo, a pachuco. I was a chain-carrying low life.”

He graduated from PSJA High School in 1959 at the age of 21 after spending a few years living in Monterrey, Mexico. Shortly after graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Agapito Leal served in the U.S. Navy until 1963. (Courtesy photo)

“I joined the Navy and found out that I was not the dumbest person in the world,” Leal said, describing how his time as a sailor gave a boost to his confidence. “My inferiority complex went out the window. I threw it in the ocean. I was on a destroyer for four years, and I loved it.”

Leal was discharged from the Navy in 1963. It was then that he decided to attend college at North Texas State University in Denton. He recalled his struggles with school at the time, but he enjoyed the college life. He decided to enroll in a junior college in 1967.

He recalled one fateful night at a party at Dallas County Community College that would alter the course of his career.

“I​​t was a drama club party,” he recalled. “We went in there and we got little cookies and punch, and the teacher says, ‘I want you to read something for me.’ I said, ‘Sure. What do you want me to read?’ I thought he meant reading a book for him or something. No, he wanted me to audition for him.”

Leal showed up to the audition a few days later and got the part. He was cast in the play “A Marriage Proposal” by Anton Chekhov.

“That was the bug that bit me,” he said, recalling the epiphanic moment that he fell in love with acting. “After I finished doing that play, about eight weeks later, I told my professor that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. So that’s what I did.”

Pete Leal, left, is seen in a file photo from the PBS show “Carrascolendas.”

Leal said that acting felt like a career move given his playful nature and his ability to make people laugh.

“When I was a kid, I liked to clown around, you know, to make people laugh,” he recalled. “I may have carried a chain in my pocket, but I never fought. I was not a bad guy. I was gay, and I knew it. I was afraid to come out to my friends. At that time in the 1950s, you didn’t do that. You’d get killed.”

Not long after college, Leal began getting roles in commercials. He recalled having as many as 10 commercials on the air when he first moved to Los Angeles.

“I was a very typical cute Mexican guy,” Leal said. “I fit into any place. I was very castable and they liked the fact that I could speak Spanish.”

Leal would soon land a small role in the popular television show “Three’s Company.” He also found success in the popular PBS children’s show “​​Carrascolendas” playing village cafe owner.

Pete Leal is pictured with the cast of the PBS bilingual children’s program “Carrascolendas.”

When I was a kid, I liked to clown around, you know, to make people laugh. I may have carried a chain in my pocket, but I never fought. I was not a bad guy. I was gay, and I knew it. I was afraid to come out to my friends. At that time in the 1950s, you didn’t do that. You’d get killed.

“He is jovial. He is comical. He is loving, He is what you want in a grandfather. He would be a perfect grandfather,” Monica Martinez-Hamilton said about her beloved Uncle Pete.

“​​I remember being a kindergartner or something, and my mom would say we’re gonna go to grandma’s house because Uncle Pete is in town,” she continued. “We had already seen him on a TV show called ​​Carrascolendas, so we were excited because our uncle is like, actually in the flesh. We would go to grandma’s house and we’d run up to him. He’d have open arms and we’d sit on his lap and he would talk to us, kind of like he does his character on TV. Like, he would come down to our level. He was all joy.”

Leal had a number of roles in large productions including “Los Beltran,” “The George Lopez Show,” and many, many others. He’d decided to retire from acting in the early 2000s, at which point he met and married his husband Richard Babick, before landing his most recent role in Moving On.

Agapito “Pete” Leal

He described his career as a journey full of obstacles, but despite his numerous accomplishments he remains humble and kind.

When asked what advice he would share with other young Mexican-American and LGBTQ individuals who want to go into film and television, he responded with a simple message, “Love yourself.”

“Accept yourself for who you are,” Leal said. “Don’t make any excuses to anybody, and don’t let those bullies get the best of you. They bully you because they’re afraid of you. They think you’re better than they are. Look at it that way. You are very special person with a lot of good talent, to do a lot of beautiful things.”