He was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and originally intended to become a bullfighter like his father. When the family moved to the United States, however, he became interested in acting when he was picked at random for a role as an extra. He chose his screen name by combining the names of his favorite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He was often cast in the stereotypical "Latin Lover" role.
Roland's first major role was in the collegiate comedy The Plastic Age (1925) together with Clara Bow, to whom he became engaged. In 1926, he played Armand in Camille opposite Norma Talmadge, with whom he was romantically involved, and they starred together in several productions. Roland later appeared in Spanish language adaptations of American films, in romantic lead roles. Roland served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
Beginning in the 1940s, critics began to take notice of his acting and he was praised for his supporting roles in John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). He also appeared in a series of films in the mid-1940s as the popular character "The Cisco Kid". He played Hugo, the agnostic (and totally fictional) friend of the three shepherd children in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, based on the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917. In 1953, Roland played Greek-American sponge diver Mike Petrakis in the epic Beneath the 12-Mile Reef.
Roland played Dom Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil, in a 1963 episode, "A Kingdom for a Horse", of the syndicated western television series Death Valley Days.
His last film appearance was in the 1982 western Barbarosa.
Roland married actress Constance Bennett on April 20, 1941 in Yuma, Arizona. They were married until 1946. He had appeared with Bennett, in 1933, as Pepe a gigolo, in George Cukor's Our Betters and, in the same year, as the romantic lead in After Tonight, a World War I drama. His second marriage, to Guillermina Cantú in 1954, lasted until his death forty years later.
Gilbert Roland died of cancer in Beverly Hills, California, in 1994, aged 88. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.
Roland was nominated twice for a Golden Globe Award, for his roles in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Gilbert Roland has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6730 Hollywood Boulevard.
The moving image collection of Gilbert Roland is held at the Academy Film Archive. Home movies make up the bulk of the collection. The film material at the Academy Film Archive is complemented by material in the Gilbert Roland papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.
Television:Zorro, episodes "El Bandido" and "Adios El Cuchillo" (1960) as El Cuchillo / The Knife
Gunsmoke, episode "Extradition" (1963) as Lt. Julio Chavez
The Fugitive, episode "Somebody to Remember" (1964) as Gus Priamos
Combat! (1965) as Boulanger
Bonanza episode "The Lonely Runner" (1965) as Jim Acton
Death Valley Days, episode "A Kingdom for a Horse" (1963) as Emperor Dom Pedro
The High Chaparral
Night Gallery (1972) as The Bartender (segment "The Waiting Room")
Hart to Hart, episode "The Raid" (1980) as Jorge
"[Barnaby Jones]" (1974) "Rendezvous with Terror"
La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (1935)
Screen Snapshots Series 15, No. 8 (1936)
Picture People No. 2: Hollywood Sports (1941)
Wings Up (1943)