Raised in Puerto Rico, Mercado started as a dancer and actor in telenovelas before fundamentally stumbling onto his astrological forecasts shtick in 1969, wearing flowing robes and jewelry that made Liberace look definitely modest. His gender-nonconforming exuberance proved scant impediment to wild success even amid an era of rampant homophobia, the kind that made him an object of satirists but nevertheless a personality welcomed in to millions of homes for the duration of Latin America and across the globe.
That winning profile would be the fun part of the story, but a darker side emerges, regarding a dispute between Mercado and his longtime manager, Bill Bakula, who’s among those interviewed. Having fundamentally signed his name away (naively, Mercado and those near to him say), Mercado ended up in a protracted legal battle, one which explains his mysterious disappearance from the airwaves and hermit-like existence when directors Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch got him to cooperate for the film.
Mercado was an amazing character, but so adept at fending off inquiries with wry one-liners and carefully rehearsed lines that the filmmakers never actually penetrate his ornate shell. Questions about his sexuality, being an LGBTQ icon or his beliefs (his act included a kind-of mixture of religion and New Age spirituality) were politely dismissed or evaded, like nothing can knock him off his relentlessly upbeat message.
Though it’s discussed primarily in the context of the lawsuit, “Mucho Mucho Amor” (Mercado’s signature sign-off) doesn’t enter much detail about Mercado’s later association with phone-in services, and the potential of TV ventures like the Psychic Friends Network to exploit desperate people.
A central takeaway is not only about the man but the warm nostalgia that he represents — the memories, as Miranda among others recall, of grandmothers hushing them all through the minutes he came on daily, running through the Zodiac with horoscopes filled up with a persistent sense of hope.
“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” premieres July 8 on Netflix.