The Gentleman Giant
By Eric Deggans
is gracious and open-hearted, despite the fact that
he has been a major TV star since pastel T-shirts
and white suits were hip.
But ask whether the rumors are true—that he
might take over as president on NBC’s political
drama The West Wing if the network picks up the show
for next season—and Jimmy Smits gets coy, trying
to deflect the question without answering it outright.
“This might be a year of my life that I’ll
spend working on a show that says something positive,”
says Smits, of his new role as Matt Santos, the first
Latino to run for president in the West Wing world.
(In real life, actor Martin Sheen who plays the current
president on the show is Hispanic.) “Right now,
I’m just happy with the way things have worked
out … It just felt right.”
Already, West Wing viewers have seen Smits’
Santos emerge as a savvy, principled congressman from
Texas ready to quit the game until Bradley Whitford’s
presidential aide Josh Lyman comes calling with an
offer he can’t refuse.
To hear Smits tell it, that’s about how series
executive producer John Wells (ER, Third Watch) got
him to join the show in the first place.
Aware that Smits was appearing in a New York stage
production of Much Ado About Nothing last summer,
Wells flew in from Hollywood to talk over some ideas.
His primary notion: Isn’t it about time for
a Latino presidential candidate in West Wing land?
“It was a week after the Democratic National
Convention and everybody was jazzed about Barack Obama,”
says Smits, recalling Obama’s stirring speech
on his origins as the son of a black Kenyan father
and white American mother. “You saw the potential
of what we people of color can be in this country—not
just in sports, not just in music, but somebody who
can be a force down the line in national politics.”
As the West Wing season unfolded, fans have seen Santos
struggle to balance his own principles with the compromises
necessary to compete in a presidential election. Eventually,
he tangles with M*A*S*H star Alan Alda’s Republican
Senator Arnold Vinick in a battle for the White House
that will likely cap the season in mid-2005.
“The media can really influence the way people
think—and, ultimately, how minorities are perceived,”
says Smits, noting that some Latino fans still tell
him they were inspired to enter law school because
of his work playing public defender-turned-high-powered
attorney Víctor Sifuentes on the series L.A.
Law. “If you have a person who is a lawyer or
presidential candidate on television, and you’ve
only seen people like you portrayed as maids or gardeners
… that can help a young person broaden their
horizons. All of that stuff went into the mix when
I was considering doing this.”
Longtime friend Esaí Morales, who remembers
competing with Smits for the same jobs in their early
days, calls his pal “The Abe Lincoln of Latinos”
for scoring such an image-changing role. As America
is poised to accept its first Hispanic attorney general
[Al Gonzales] and commerce secretary [Carlos Gutiérrez],
the time couldn’t be better for increased diversity
among fictional politicians as well, he notes.
“I think it is uncanny timing that people from
the West Wing were wise enough to include one of our
own … and not just one of our own, but someone
who has a quiet dignity,” says Morales, who
worked with Smits, Sonia Braga and attorney Félix
Sánchez to create the National Hispanic Foundation
for the Arts in 1997. “Jimmy … he doesn’t
push. He’s not out there for ego’s sake.
You try to represent your people with your actions,
not just your words, and Jimmy does that every day.”
Before the show returned with new episodes in fall
2004, industry experts predicted this season would
be West Wing’s last—thanks to sagging
and sinking public interest. But this season’s
stories—which have shaken up the cast and added
new faces such as Alda and Smits himself—have
perked up the ratings. It’s all good for Smits,
who has a deal with Disney to develop a series for
ABC next season as a producer and star—though,
if his West Wing role should continue, he could find
another actor to lead that project.
Enviable as it all sounds, it’s not an unusual
turn of events for Smits, who has the kind of luck
in scoring TV roles that few actors enjoy.
For example, producer Steven Bochco originally offered
Smits a starring role in his edgy cop show NYPD Blue
before the series debuted. But with hopes of developing
a film career, Smits passed on the job, only to return
a few years later when co-star David Caruso walked
off the show.
Similarly, he was offered the lead in CSI: Miami (which
went to Caruso when Smits passed), and perused the
script for NBC’s Boomtown before it was filmed.
But Smits, ever modest, downplays any talk of a golden
touch—especially since his most recent efforts
to develop a network TV show for himself haven’t
worked out yet.
“Pilot season comes around and I get loads of
scripts, but it’s finding that right one,”
says Smits, who dreads getting stuck on the type of
police show that is popular now, in which the procedure
of solving a crime is more important than the characters.
“I don’t think (the problems with scripts
are) so much about Hollywood not understanding Hispanics—that’s
another layer. But the first thing is having an idea
that can work.”
For Smits, it’s all about finding work that
fuels his passion; an ethic that came from his high-school
days in Brooklyn. Back then, a drama teacher took
his class to stage productions in Manhattan, giving
Smits a close-up look at two actors who would serve
as instant inspiration: Raúl Juliá and
James Earl Jones.
“Raúl came from Puerto Rico and has a
Latin last name and spoke with an accent … James
Earl Jones was able to tackle seemingly any kind of
material, from the classics to modern August Wilson
plays,” Smits says. “I always felt they
didn’t limit themselves and weren’t limited
by the color of their skin or the fact that they had
an accent or that English wasn’t their first
language. It gave me permission to aspire.”
Born in 1955 to a mother from Puerto Rico and a father
from Dutch Guiana (now known as Surinam), Smits came
of age in a household influenced by a myriad of cultures.
But it was the event he now calls “the most
traumatic experience of my life” which significantly
marked him—living in Puerto Rico for two years
before high school.
“It cemented what my identity was … it
was like, ‘Pull this kid out of school, out
of America, and plop him down here,’ ”
Smits says. “I learned to speak Spanish. My
love for my music and my culture comes from those
years. But there’s a big void, where American
culture didn’t exist for me. It was always about
fitting into a new environment.”
By the time he returned to Brooklyn for high school,
it was obvious that the theater provided a spark in
his life that traditional academics and sports did
not. So when the time came to choose between his spot
on a highly competitive football team or work in the
school’s drama club, the choice seemed to make
“I wasn’t really a great student, but
I could spend hours in the library trying to research
18th-century mannerisms,” Smits says. “I
remember the team came to one of my shows and they
stood up for me. I made the decision right then, acting
was right for me.”
Selling his parents and relatives on the choice was
tougher, even when he scored admission to Cornell
University’s master’s program for drama
after graduating from Brooklyn College. Part of their
concern was practical: Smits had fathered a daughter,
Taina, at age 17, and the family had banded together
to help him get through Brooklyn College.
“People were always saying I had to have something
to fall back on,” Smits says, laughing. “I
remember telling my father I just got accepted at
Cornell—this kid from Brooklyn at an Ivy League
school—and he would say, ‘What can you
with that degree? Can you teach college?’ It
was always about having something to fall back on.”
Encouraged by a teacher at Cornell who also was a
working actor, Smits scored roles on the New York
stage and then his first big break—a role in
the pilot of the classic ’80s cop show Miami
Vice. Unfortunately, his character, the original partner
of Don Johnson’s Miami police Det. James “Sonny”
Crockett, was killed early in the episode.
But other signature roles followed, from bad guy drug
dealer Julio Gonzales in the 1986 film Running Scared
to Sifuentes in L.A. Law and movies such as Blake
Edwards’ Switch and Old Gringo with Gregory
Peck and Jane Fonda. When the movie roles lessened,
he moved to NYPD Blue and created another compassionate,
inspiring character, Det. Bobby Simone.
And even though his career has progressed nicely,
Smits can’t help wondering why there aren’t
more brown faces next to him on TV’s A-list.
“When I start talking about this, I get these
looks like … ‘You’re working, man.
What are you complaining about?’ But it doesn’t
change the way I feel,” he says. “In every
decade, there are five or 10 names you can cite—Fernando
Lamas or Rita Moreno or now Jennifer [López]
and Benicio [del Toro]—who are household names.
But (compared to) what our population numbers are
… it’s not enough.”
Smits’ solution is for Hispanics to create their
own projects, which is why he helped found the National
Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997.
had met lobbyist/lawyer Félix Sánchez
in 1988 while stumping for then-Democratic presidential
candidate Michael Dukakis—introduced Smits to
Sánchez and the three eventually joined Braga
to create the foundation.
“They were among the few successful Latinos
who had a television or film career and they wanted
to throw a lifeline back to young Hispanics,”
says Sánchez, noting that the foundation has
distributed more than $500,000 in scholarships (to
graduate students in the performing arts) and sponsored
events such as performer showcases and talent development
“Jimmy’s story is an example of how you
can achieve success in this business with graduate-level
preparation,” added Sánchez, a former
assistant to ex-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who now runs
his own lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.
“In his work on the West Wing, we are seeing
a Latino character as a complex and three-dimensional
person with success and ambition running in his veins,”
he says. “It is the awakening not of the Latino
sleeping giant, but of the sleeping entertainment
community. We are living in the most amazing time
for Latinos politically … (but) in central,
leading roles (in film and TV), we are few and far
It makes sense that an artist such as Smits—whose
work both on and off camera has reflected his strong
commitment to his Latino heritage and culture—might
be the first to embody Hispanics’ growing influence
in politics and entertainment.
But it is his own commitment to artistic challenge
and growth that will keep him on the move—avoiding
TV’s tendency to pigeonhole and typecast, regardless
of how many prime opportunities he may have to relinquish
to stay energized.
“I’ve always felt as an actor it’s
all about showing different sides,” Smits says.
“If you’re always playing the same person,
it’s kind of like golden handcuffs. It’s
not like I left any of these shows—L.A. Law
or NYPD Blue—with a three-picture deal in my
back pocket. It’s been more about finding artistic
challenges … and going to the next level.”