Born in the city of Santa Rita do Passa Quatro, in the state of São Paulo, with fourteen years of age he moves to the state's capital, São Paulo city, working as a lab assistant and office-boy for a law firm.
In 1967, while studying law at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, he begins his theater career at the Teatro da Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, with the play Morte e Vida Severina by João Cabral de Melo Neto and Chico Buarque.
A year later, he was starring in movies, but his career came to a quick halt because of his political activism. Abreu was arrested during a meeting of the União Nacional dos Estudantes, belonged to the Ação Popular and gave logistical support to the Vanguarda Armada Revolucionária Palmares, a leftist group that fought against the military regime. He would also join the hippie movement during that time, in contrast with his militaristic actions.
Forced into exile in Europe in 1968, he returns in 1974 to live in Pelotas, state of Rio Grande do Sul, his wife's homeland. They both teach at the federal university in that city, but soon move to Porto Alegre, where he produces musicals and stars in child plays. It's his, alongside his wife, the first staging of the musical Os Saltimbancos in that state.
Then, after the success of the movie A Intrusa (The Intruder) (1979), filmed in Uruguaiana, RS, he starts working as an actor in TV Globo's soap-operas.
In 2006 he partners with director Luiz Arthur Nunes to create Fala, Zé!, a theatrical monologue in which he critically reflects on his generation, crossing biography and fiction.
In 2011 he plays Milton in the soap-opera Insensato Coração and, in 2012, the character Nilo in Avenida Brasil. in 2013 the character ernest in joia rara, in 2015 plays the villain gibson stewart in a regra do jogo
He has five children, with three different partners. His first child, Rodrigo, died in an accident in 1992, at age 21. He also has four grandchildren. In early 2013, he declared he is bisexual.
José performed in over 24 movies and 47 television shows, of which most are soap-operas.