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Dr. Stable and Mr. Hip

Hector Elizondo may play a hospital chief of staff on TV, but in real life he's a cool cat.
Joe Rhodes
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Hector Elizondo is not what he appears to be. People see him on television every week playing Dr. Phillip Watters, the embodiment of dignified authority on "Chicago Hope"--the calm, conservative chief of staff who holds everything together while medical and ethical crises swirl around him--and think they know him. They see the costume and think they see the man inside. They couldn't be more wrong.

A doctor--particularly a chief of staff--is the last thing Hector Elizondo could have been. There are too many rules, too many restrictions, too many coats and ties. He is not the kind of man who sends memos and calls meetings, who keeps regular hours and lives behind a desk.

What he is, beneath his establishment-creature facade, is a hipster. A swinger. A beatnik. A cat. A real live, finger-snapping, jazz-loving, poetry-reading, conga-playing, jive-talking, espresso-drinking Bohemian cat, the kind who used to wear black turtleneck sweaters and sunglasses at night, who dug Fellini and Ferlinghetti, Brando and Bergman, Mingus and Monk, who used to sit in the dark corner of Greenwich Village coffeehouses and when he heard something he liked would simply whisper, "Cool."

Even now, well into his 60th year, his conversation is peppered with the syncopated slang of his youth, every other sentence ending with "man." When asked why he's so good at voice-over work--a talent that earns him practically as much income and satisfaction as his movie and television roles--his answer, verbatim, is this:

"If you ain't got the chops, if you don't hear the rebop, you ain't gonna get it, know what I mean? As we used to say uptown, I'm blessed with the rebop. I know how to find the groove."

Cool.

"There's a mischievous quality about Hector that I'm not sure everyone gets," says "Chicago Hope" co-star Adam Arkin, who often spends time with Elizondo between takes, playing congas and discussing the meaning of life.

"We talk a lot about music, a lot about philosophy and art and the craft of acting," Arkin says. "We speak about beauty and aesthetics in many forms. He's a lover of truth and irony and, I think, an interesting combination of a beatnik mixed with a Castilian nobleman."

So how is it that Elizondo's on-screen image comes mostly from playing authority figures and squares--doctors, lawyers, policemen, football coaches? Maybe it's that he's so good at looking serious and stern. Maybe it's just that he doesn't have hair and hasn't for 30 years. Or maybe it's Garry Marshall's fault. It is Marshall who gave Elizondo the role that, before "Chicago Hope," was his best known and most beloved, the part of the wise, worldly and benevolent hotel manager who helped turn Julia Roberts from a prostitute into a princess in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Elizondo has been in every movie Marshall has directed, nine in all, starting with the 1982 soap opera parody Young Doctors in Love, all the way through last year's Dear God.

"I like having him play the heads of things," says Marshall, who in addition to Pretty Woman has given Elizondo memorable turns as a working-class dad in The Flamingo Kid, an advertising executive in Nothing in Common and a Greek diner owner in Frankie and Johnny. "I think I do it because he has good posture."


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