R.I.P. Gregory Sierra, actor in everything from Gunsmoke to Barney Miller
He played tough cops, funny neighbors and even visited Walton’s mountain.
Gregory Sierra, an actor who was hard to miss on TV in the 1970s and worked steadily through the 1990s, has died at the age of 83. His most famous roles include Fred Sanford’s neighbor, Julio, on Sanford and Son and Detective Miguel “Chano” Amenguele on Barney Miller. The prolific actor also appeared in Gunsmoke, Columbo and Hawaii Five-O.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and '50s, Sierra felt the pull of gang life but also attended a prep school for boys looking to become priests – the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception. Sierra, however, rejected both futures when he fell in love with performing after accompanying a friend to an acting class.
Throughout the 1960s, Sierra became an accomplished Shakespearian actor. He toured with the National Shakespeare Company and performed in the New York Shakespeare Festival. As the Sixties came to an end, Sierra left the east coast stage to try his luck in Hollywood.
In 1969, he won roles in shows like The Flying Nun and It Takes a Thief. The following year he appeared in The Mod Squad, Mission: Impossible and played Verger in his feature film debut Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Sierra then appeared in the 1971 movie Red Sky at Morning starring John-Boy Walton himself, Richard Thomas. The two would work together again just two years later in an episode of The Waltons. Also in 1973 was Sierra’s intense performance as Jewish vigilante Paul Benjamin in one of the most dramatic episodes of All in the Family. After the tragic climactic moments, the episode ends with silence instead of the usual audience applause.
Sierra had a bigger role in another Norman Lear sitcom, Sanford and Son. He faced Fred Sanford’s anti-Puerto Rican prejudice as neighbor Julio Fuentes. Sierra also played a character with similar heritage to his own when he embodied Det. Sgt. Miguel Amenguale in the 1970s police dramedy Barney Miller. Amenguale, nicknamed “Chano,” was a proud Puerto Rican New Yorker dedicated to protecting his city. The emotional episode “The Hero,” in which Chano kills two robbery suspects, put Sierra’s talent as an actor on full display.
Barney Miller co-creator and producer Danny Arnold envisioned a new series for Sierra that allowed for a fresh mix of laughter and tears. A.E.S. Hudson Street premiered in 1978 and portrayed the chaos of an overworked New York City emergency hospital. Sierra lead the show as Dr. Antonio “Tony” Menzies. Unfortunately, it was canceled after only a few episodes.
Over the next two decades, Sierra appeared in a wide range of projects including Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Cagney & Lacey, Growing Pains, MacGyver, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
His most recent movie came out just a few years ago, though its release is somewhat misleading. Gregory Sierra was part of the large cast of Orson Welles’ satire The Other Side of the Wind. Filmed in the 1970s, the picture was shelved for decades until the raw footage was finally edited down into a digestible form in 2018.