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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

(continued from page 3)

Hector decided, very young, that settling was something he would never do. He was a joyous, rambunctious, musical kid who in 1946, when he was 10 years old, had his first show business role as a singer on a local New York TV show called "The Okey Dokey Ranch."

"I was a kid who got in just enough trouble to be healthy, you know? Not too much. Just enough. I didn't have too many plans, other than playing ball and exercising my testosterone levels, having a good time. But there was always something brewing in the back of my head, in my fevered brain, that there was something out there waiting for me. And I knew it wasn't about 9 to 5. I couldn't do that. It would have to be something other than driving a bread truck. Maybe a gangster or a cop or a ball player. So I quit a lot of jobs, did things only a young stupid person with a lot of energy and no sense of their own mortality can do."

This included, among other things, a brief flirtation with studying bullfighting in Mexico City. After a few weeks of training in a smelly, hot, dusty bull ring without a bull, he quit. "There was no plan, just this aimless drifting, until I discovered the world of artists, actors, poets and writers."

Blessed with the rhythm and grace of an athlete, Elizondo took up drumming in his late teens. By the age of 20, he held down the kind of straight job he'd sworn he'd never have--working in the accounting department of the Colonial Sand and Stone Co. At night and on weekends he drummed in a Latin jazz quintet in Greenwich Village, which led to an offer to play conga drums for a jazz class at Carnegie Hall. It wasn't long before he became a dancer himself.

"There was still no plan," he says. "Somebody said, 'Why don't you try dancing?' And I thought, 'Sure. Why not. I mean, all these broads and I'm the only straight guy here.'

"It was hard work, but I liked it. And the dancing led to acting just like the drumming led to dancing, and suddenly it seemed as if I'd been on this path all along without knowing it. Who knows how this stuff works. You often find your destiny on the path you take to avoid it, right?"

His gift for acting, it turned out, was even greater than his gift for music. He had a natural ear for accents, an ability to become characters as easily as he changed costumes. "I took the long way around," he says, noting that he was 23 when he took his first acting lesson, "but when I finally got my Equity card and was making 60 bucks a week, the same bread I was making at Colonial Sand and Stone, and was having fun while I was doing it, well I was finally alive."

It was a life his father had difficulty understanding. "My father saw me on Broadway and he said to me, 'I was impressed that there were so many words, but Hector, when are you gonna get a real job?' And my mother [Carmen] was like, 'Why don't you ever wear ties? Is this what actors do? You don't even own a suit.' "

Elizondo loves telling stories from the lean years, talking about the apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen or one of his first movies, Valdez Is Coming, which he made in 1969, where he had a scene with Burt Lancaster.

It was in his 20s that Elizondo began smoking cigars, although he'd been around them most of his life. "My granddad worked at a cigar factory in Puerto Rico," he says. "He was a reader in the factory. "It's a great tradition. In the old days, because the work was so hard and so repetitive, they had to essentially keep the workers occupied in other ways, so they would have someone read to them while they worked: newspapers, novels, whatever they had. My granddad started as a cigar worker and then became a reader at the lectern.

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