MEXICO CITY — Roberto Gomez Bolanos, the iconic Mexican comedian who wrote and played the boy television character “El Chavo del Ocho” that defined a generation for millions of Latin American children, died Friday at age 85.
Known as “Chespirito” (chess-pee-REE-to), he changed comedy in Latin America, taking his inspiration from Laurel and Hardy as well as Mexico’s other transcendent comedian who eventually made it to Hollywood, Cantinflas.
His two most famous characters were “El Chavo del Ocho,” who lived in the homes of Latin America and beyond with his barrel, freckles, striped shirt and frayed cap, and the naive superhero “El Chapulin Colorado,” or “The Crimson Grasshopper.” His morning show was a staple for preschoolers, much like “Captain Kangaroo” in the United States.
His employer, the Televisa television network, which is the world’s largest producer of Spanish-language programs, did not give the cause of death. It said his body would be flown from his home in Cancun to Mexico City on Saturday for a private funeral Mass at the network’s headquarters, and a public tribute was planned for Sunday at Azteca stadium.
He warmed the hearts of millions with a clean comedy style far removed from the sexual innuendo and obscenity-laced jokes popular today. In a career that started in the 1950s, he wrote hundreds of television episodes, 20 films and theater productions that drew record-breaking audiences.
His prolific output earned him the nickname “Chespirito.” It came from the Spanish phonetic pronunciation of Shakespeare — “Chespir” — combined with “ito,” a diminutive commonly used in Mexico that seemed natural for Gomez Bolanos because of his short stature.
“Nicknames are the most essential in life, more valuable than names,” the actor said in 2011.
On Friday, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto tweeted, “Mexico has lost an icon whose work has transcended generations and borders.”
Born Feb. 21, 1929, he trained as an engineer, but he was dedicated to writing from a young age.
Talented both on the screen and behind it, he achieved smashing success in 1970 with the creation of “Chespirito,” a television show that included segments about “The Crimson Grasshopper.”
The goofy superhero dressed in a red bodysuit and hood with antennae that helped him detect danger miles away. He completed the outfit with yellow shorts and boots, giving him the look of a red bumblebee. The character, whose superpowers included shrinking to the size of a pill and dodging enemies, constantly repeated his signature phrases, “You didn’t count on my cleverness” and “All the good people, follow me.”
In 1971, Gomez Bolanos wrote and acted as “El Chavo del Ocho” (“The Boy from the Eight”), a reference to the channel that broadcast the show.
“El Chavo” proved so popular that reruns are still shown in multiple countries in Latin American and on Spanish language television in the United States. Many Latin Americans, living under dictatorships during the height of the show, found his underdog triumphs heroic in the face of authority.
In a 2005 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Gomez Bolano said he always wrote with working class people in mind.
“There are writers who pour out words, concepts that sound really important but that basically say nothing,” he said. “I always tried to be as concise as possible, all to try and reach everyone, but especially the simple people, those who needed to be reached more than anyone else.”
He also delved successfully in theater for adults. In 1992 he produced, directed and acted in “11 and 12,” the story of a man who loses his genitals in an accident and wants to impregnate his wife. The play set a record in Mexico, surpassing 3,200 performances.
Proof of his wide popularity came when he opened a Twitter account in 2011 with a simple message: “Hello. I’m Chespirito. I’m 82-years-old and this is the first time I tweet. This is my debut. All the good people, follow me!”
In less than two months, he had 1 million followers. By the time of his death, there were 6.6 million.
Gomez Bolanos is survived by his second wife, actress Florinda Meza, as well as six children from his first marriage and 12 grandchildren.