The Man Who Would Be Fidel

For more than fifteen years, master Castro imitator Armando Roblan has been sending up El Tirano

But what had begun as a joke started to take on more serious implications. To Roblan's dismay, people started treating him as if he really was Fidel Castro. One day he was performing at Havana's Coney Island amusement park when a woman came up to him and asked, "What's going to happen to the political prisoners?" Roblan, as Castro, tried to give her the most reassuring answer he could, telling her not to worry. "She left, and someone said to me, 'What if they execute her husband?'" recalls Roblan. "I knew I had to get out of that situation."

And so he started making plans. As a comic, Roblan had performed several times in Latin America, and he knew that through his connections he would be granted a travel visa. "There were people who were working with the government who knew that I couldn't stay there," Roblan explains. "I see humor in everything, I don't have limits. For me there's something funny in every moment, I can't help it. And I knew that went against what they believed in." He left Cuba for the United States on September 14, 1961, with his first wife and their infant son, landing in New Orleans. From there he made his way to Miami where, finding little opportunity in the local Anglo-dominated show business scene of the time, he decided to become a sign painter. Cuban exiles had started opening businesses in Little Havana, and Roblan made signs for what would eventually become the new shopping district along Calle Ocho.

Not long after his arrival here, Roblan and his wife were divorced. He then received an offer to go to Panama to host the children's program Los Amigitos de Roblan and produce a comedy-variety show. There he met Gloria, who eventually became his second wife. (They've been married for more than 30 years. The couple has a daughter, Priscilla, an advertising executive, and a son, Armando, who works for the Disney Corporation. Both children, now in their twenties, live in Miami. His Cuban-born son, Orlando, from Roblan's first marriage, also lives here.) Several years later, Roblan, Gloria, and their two children moved from Panama to Puerto Rico, where he worked as an actor and writer for television.

Roblan returned to the U.S. in the early Seventies, settling in Austin to take a role on Caras Colendas, a program produced by the University of Texas for Hispanic children. Roblan now describes the show as a Spanish version of Sesame Street; he played the owner of a toy store.

In 1973 Roblan and his family returned to Miami. But the actor continued to work for Latin American television, commuting weekly. At one point he was performing in Puerto Rico Monday through Friday, going to Panama to tape a program on Sundays, and in between flying to Chile to make guest appearances on Sabado Gigante, the enormously popular variety show that is now filmed in Miami.

Roblan finally tired of so much travel and decided to try his luck on the Spanish theater circuit in Miami. In 1980 he appeared as Castro for the first time in Miami at Teatro Marti in No Hay Mal que Dure Cien A*os (No Evil Lasts a Hundred Years), written by Cuban playwright and screenwriter Alberto Gonzalez. The show's run coincided with the Mariel boatlift and the sudden arrival of thousands of Cuban refugees in Miami. The cast incorporated sendups of those pivotal local events into a series of comedic sketches, with Roblan playing both Castro and then-president Ronald Reagan. To Roblan's surprise, the audience loved it.

"I didn't think I could do Castro in Miami," he says now with a bemused shrug. "It seemed illogical." Gonzalez, who originally had proposed an idea for a TV pilot in which Roblan would play the Cuban president (it never flew), had to talk the actor into doing the play. But it was so successful that later that same year Roblan wrote his own vehicle to accommodate his Castro impersonation: Ni la Vaca de Fidel Esta de Acuerdo con El (Not Even Fidel's Cow Agrees with Him). Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Roblan has continued to write and perform in similar productions: first at Teatro Marti, then at the now-defunct Teatro Cuba on Bird Road, and later at Teatro Trail, which he began renting in 1993.

He still accepts other acting jobs, which help pay the rent, and regularly appears on Sabado Gigante in broad ethnic roles (he's played an Asian, for instance). Last summer he filmed Castro vs. Castro, a made-for-television movie produced by Miami-based Palmer Productions. Tony Borbolla, who directed the hourlong film, describes it as a "study of the psychology of a dictator." Roblan plays Castro today, while another Cuban actor, Michel Paneke, plays the young Fidel, who comes to the present-day president in a dream. While its sentiments are undeniably anti-Castro, the film evenhandedly examines Fidel's progression from a young idealistic rebel to an uncompromising autocrat. Borbolla has shown the film to both the Telemundo and Univisi centsn networks, but neither has made an offer to broadcast it. The director says that one local critic who works at a Spanish-language newspaper suggested it was "too intellectual" for the Latin TV audience.

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