Even as some media outlets proclaimed it “promising” and “groundbreaking,” many were uncertain about the show’s future and how it would play to a “mainstream” audience. “It’s too much to ask of this mostly guileless, slightly ungainly series that it be another ‘Lost’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ for ABC this year, so maybe we should watch aloofly, starting tonight,” the New York Times advised in its review of the show’s first season. “Let’s let Betty find her locker and her lunch table, and observe her without asking that she be more than she is.”
But “Ugly Betty” quickly gained a devoted fan base, thanks to its plucky heroine, a reliably hilarious ensemble cast — editrix Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) and sassy fashion assistants, Marc St. James (Michael Urie) and Amanda Tanen (Becki Newton), among them — and a healthy dose of sharp wit. About halfway through Season 1, the ABC comedy would prove just how much Betty Suarez resonated with viewers. In January 2007, “Ugly Betty” won the Golden Globe for best TV comedy, beating out “Entourage,” “Weeds,” “The Office” and, ahem, “Desperate Housewives.”
“Like a lot of its characters and a lot of us up here right now, this show is an immigrant,” the show’s creator, Silvio Horta, said as he accepted the honor with the cast and crew — including Ferrera and executive producer Salma Hayek — smiling behind him. “Betty is a testament to the American Dream, and the American Dream is, in fact, alive and well — and within reach of anyone in the world who wants it.”
As a first-generation Cuban American, Horta was deeply familiar with that dream. It was an experience he infused into the beloved series, which ran for four seasons before its 2010 finale. “Betty is first-generation Latino American, like myself, trying to straddle two new worlds,” Horta told TV Week ahead of the show’s premiere.
Ferrera won best actress in a TV series musical or comedy at the 2007 Golden Globes, where she proclaimed “it’s such an honor to play a role that I hear from young girls on a daily basis how it makes them feel worthy and lovable and that they have more to offer the world than they thought.”
She paid tribute to Horta in an Instagram post Tuesday night: “His talent and creativity brought me and so many others such joy & light. I’m thinking of his family and loved ones who must be in so much pain right now- and of the whole Ugly Betty family who feel this loss so deeply.”
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I’m stunned and heartbroken to hear the devastating news of Ugly Betty creator, Silvio Horta’s death. His talent and creativity brought me and so many others such joy & light. I’m thinking of his family and loved ones who must be in so much pain right now- and of the whole Ugly Betty family who feel this loss so deeply.
“Ugly Betty” had been in development for years before ABC signed on to air it. According to a 2006 New York Times article, “Betty La Fea” and a slew of successful international remakes had piqued the interest of Ben Silverman, the prolific producer behind “The Office.” But the American version got a boost from Hayek, who recruited Ferrera with the promise of a role that the actress later described as “lightning through my body.”
Horta — who penned the 1998 slasher film “Urban Legend,” and helmed the short-lived UPN sci-fi series “Jake 2.0” — was uniquely suited to adapt the popular telenovela for a U.S. audience. “We had one television growing up, and my mom would be watching the telenovelas every night,” Horta told the Times. “We had no choice. All my friends, first-generation immigrants, would make fun of them, and then become completely addicted.” The Miami-Dade County medical examiner ruled on Wednesday that the death was a suicide, according to NBC Miami.
Horta wanted to be involved with “Ugly Betty” so much that he initially pitched a supremely over-the-top version that featured Betty as an FBI agent, he recalled in a 2007 Paley Center interview. But he soon found that his own experience was all he needed to draw on to make the show a success. “I really just looked into my past, how I grew up with telenovelas and growing up being first generation Cuban American and … that’s the way I found in.”
“Through his friendships, his love and his work in TV and films, Silvio touched the lives of millions,” Horta’s family said in a statement to Variety. The statement, attributed to Horta’s mother and sister, described him as “a kind and beautiful man” who “had an ongoing struggle with addiction and depression.”
Horta was also remembered by other members of the close-knit “Ugly Betty” cast. “His creativity and passion will be missed by so many of us that worked with him,” Williams wrote on Instagram.
“I will be forever indebted to this sweet, brilliant man,” tweeted Urie, who also shared tributes from fans of the show. “This is sad especially because Ugly Betty kinda shaped me into the person I am today,” one wrote. Another fan tweeted that Horta had changed his life: “He is a shining example of what representation can do for a young, Latino brown gay boy."
Justin, Betty’s fashion-obsessed nephew, was partly inspired by Horta’s own life. The character, a preteen in the show’s pilot, eventually came out as gay. Horta recalled in a 2016 interview with the cast how he and the writers delicately approached the character’s coming-out journey. That, too, was rooted in Horta’s own experience.
“Silvio gave me my start at 11 years old and trusted me with a character that was so close to his heart,” Mark Indelicato, who played Justin, wrote in an Instagram story. “He will be greatly missed by all.”