Born Ramón Gil Samaniego, he was the son of a prosperous Mexican dentist.
His family moved to Los Angeles as refugees from the Mexican revolution of 1916. After stints as a ballet dancer, piano teacher and singing waiter, he became a film extra in 1917.
For five years he remained an extra until director Rex Ingram cast him as Rupert in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922). He was cast with Lewis Stone and Ingram's wife, Alice Terry (Ingram was also the person who suggested that he change his name to Novarro). He worked with Ingram in his next four films and was again teamed with Terry in the successful Scaramouche (1923).
Novarro's rising popularity among female moviegoers resulted in his being billed as the "New Valentino".
In 1925 he appeared in his most famous role, as the title character in Ben-
His first talking picture was Call of the Flesh (1930), where he sang and danced the tango. He continued to appear in musicals, but his popularity was slipping. He starred with Greta Garbo in the successful Mata Hari (1931), but his career began to fade fast. In 1935 he left MGM and appeared on Broadway in a show that quickly flopped.
Novarro continued to act sporadically, appearing in a couple of films for Republic Pictures, a Mexican religious drama, a French comedy, and later in the 1940s had several small roles in American films. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s, though Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in The High Chaparral as late as 1968..
He appeared in 62 films from 1917 to 1968.