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Jimmy Smits
The Gentleman Giant
By Eric Deggans

He 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 ratings 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 itself.

“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 do 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.

orales—who 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 programs.

“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 between.”

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.”

 

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