Raised in Puerto Rico, Mercado started as a dancer and actor in telenovelas before basically stumbling onto his astrological forecasts shtick in 1969, wearing flowing robes and jewelry that made Liberace look positively 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 still a personality welcomed into millions of homes throughout 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 is among those interviewed. Having basically signed his name away (naively, Mercado and those close to him say), Mercado wound up in a protracted legal battle, one that 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 a fascinating 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, as if 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 get into 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 and others recall, of grandmothers hushing them during the minutes he came on each day, running through the Zodiac with horoscopes filled with a persistent sense of hope.
“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” premieres July 8 on Netflix.