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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."

They met 19 years ago in Marshall's driveway during one of the Bronx-born director's regularly scheduled pickup-basketball/ankle-sprain extravaganzas. Elizondo made a memorable first impression by throwing a behind-the-back pass right into Marshall's face. "You're a better actor than you are a passer," Marshall said, once he realized his jaw wasn't broken. They've been best friends ever since.

"Before I met him, all I knew was that he was an actor who played Puerto Rican drug dealers," Marshall says now. "Then I saw him in a couple of plays and I said, 'Whoa, you can do other things.' You put a toupee on him and he looks like a different guy. And I said to him, I promise you'll never have to play a Puerto Rican drug dealer for me."

To this day, Elizondo calls Pretty Woman the easiest acting job he's ever had, largely because of his rapport with Marshall. "We have our own vocabulary," Elizondo says, launching into a perfect imitation of Marshall's squawking accent. "He'll say, 'OK, Hector, look. You know that scene we got with four pages memorized? Forget that. Do this instead. You walk around the table and do something, then make the chair do something. Then come over and chukka chukka with that guy for a minute, do a turn over there and I'll throw you some lines. Do that.'

"And I'll say OK and know exactly what he wants. But nobody else in the place has any idea what he's talking about."

"It's true," Marshall says. "He has such a great ear for accents that he understands mine and most of the other actors don't. That's why I keep him around. He's sort of an actor-interpreter."

He is also one of the most respected and least pretentious actors in Hollywood, a low-key iconoclast in a business that is filled with billboard-sized egos and grown men in ponytails who throw screaming fits when they don't get their Evian hand-delivered or the perfect parking spot for their Porsche. Elizondo, by contrast, lives in a middle-class part of Sherman Oaks devoid of fountains, guard dogs or laser-activated gates. He has been married to writer-publisher and former actress Carolee Campbell for 28 years.

His office/study is above the family garage, a backyard hideaway of high ceilings and burnished wood with a view from the balcony as comforting as it is unspectacular--the suburban tableau of sidewalks and trees, a child's toys scattered in a neighbor's yard, skateboarding teenagers coasting on an uncrowded street.

Inside he has everything he needs--his espresso maker, his chessboard, his books, his music, his classical guitar. There are cachets on the coffee table by a sofa, filled with sage. There are books of poetry left open nearby. There is jazz on the stereo and, through the skylight, strands of late afternoon California sun.

"Being a very private fellow in a very public business," he says, "this is a good place to have."

Fame has found him late in life, the exposure of a hit weekly television series bringing him public recognition that all his years of work on stage and in movies (he's been in more than 40 films) never did. Among his fellow actors he has been a household name since the early 1970s when he made his reputation on the New York stage, first in his award-winning role off-Broadway in Steambath, in which he played, convincingly, God disguised as a Puerto Rican steambath attendant. Then came a series of Broadway star turns in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Great White Hope and Sly Fox.

Although there were some memorable parts early in his film career--a subway-hijacking thug in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a fashion-challenged police officer in American Gigolo--Elizondo's movie résumé is loaded with clunkers, everything from Private Resort to Getting Even with Dad, from which he has emerged, somehow, critically unscathed. No matter how bad the movie, the critics always single him out for praise.

"I have not had the luck with the movies, man," he says, laughing. "I don't know why. I do my job as best I can and then I walk away. My agent just shrugs. He says, 'With you, it doesn't make any difference.' I've become the Teflon actor."

The advantage of all those little-seen character parts, radio theater productions and commercial voice-overs is that they gave Elizondo a comfortable shell of anonymity, the ability to do work he loved without becoming a walking tourist attraction. But "Chicago Hope" changed all that.

"I love radio, I really do," he says. "You're a shaman when you're on the radio, that disembodied voice that makes people travel. That's cool. I wish I could make a living from radio, 'cause then people don't bother you in restaurants. Now, there's no ducking. The first time I heard someone [in a restaurant] pronounce my name correctly, I thought, 'Oh my God, it's over. I'm in trouble now.' "

You should understand that Elizondo doesn't say this because he has an aversion to meeting strangers. The opposite, in fact, is true. He's a born raconteur, willing to engage anyone on any topic--history, philosophy, politics, baseball. It's just that being a celebrity, drawing attention to himself in public, seems, to him, slightly unseemly, as if he's showing off. It's the kind of behavior of which his father would not have approved.

"My dad was such a sweet, gentle man who always reminded me of essential things like: having bad manners is much worse than being poor," Elizondo says, then smiles. "I didn't know what the hell he meant. But now I think I'm getting it.

"And he hated showing off, any kind of ostentation. He was a nineteenth-century kind of guy. Honor was a big deal for him. A very big deal."

Martin Elizondo, Hector's father, was an accountant with a small storefront office on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Martin was born on the high seas while his parents were emigrating from the Basque region of Spain, but he grew up in Puerto Rico.

"If you saw my dad, talked to him for a few minutes, you would think, well, he's kind of a straight-laced guy, an accountant, a guy you can count on," Elizondo says. "But appearances are deceiving. You get to know him and you'd get this wry sense of humor. He loved music, loved to dance, loved the fights--he had a left jab like a snake--la culebra they called it. And he loved a good cigar, too. He was a man's man, a lovely man. And he didn't start out to be an accountant. He started out with other dreams."

But somewhere along the way, Martin Elizondo decided that being a respected businessman and a good father esteemed in the neighborhood around 107th Street and Columbus Avenue was enough. "He was proud of the fact that he didn't need anything other than his own self worth," his only son recalls. "But he lost something along the way. He lost that ambition somewhere along the line, you know? He settled."

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.

"My dad didn't smoke cigars that often, but he knew people who had little cigar factories in New York, in the Bronx, and I still remember quite fondly being schlepped off to see Uncle Chu Chu or Cousin Herman on a Sunday when they'd open the factory for their friends and relatives and they'd take me along. Eventually, they would all settle down around a round table, bring out the rum, smoke cigars and talk. That's where I heard that the best cigars were rolled on the thighs of virgins, all that stuff.

"There's something about cigars that got them talking about dames. I understand it now. It's because the cigars are so tactile and sensual. A cigar is something to be considered, you know? You can't take it frivolously. It's not a fast smoke that you just flick away."

By his mid-30s, Elizondo was smoking several cigars a day, a habit from which he pulled back until just a few years ago. "I was wreathed in smoke all the time," he says, laughing. "It was too much."

Now he smokes only a couple of times a week, usually on the balcony outside his garage. "I like sitting out there with a good read, or maybe up here with a pal, sitting on the old balustrade, having a good schmooze."

It was Elizondo's idea to have Dr. Watters, his "Chicago Hope" alter ego, be a cigar smoker. The on-screen smokes are usually H. Upmann Coronas, although in real life Elizondo's tastes are eclectic--everything from Cuban Partagas to Santa Damianas, a mild Dominican cigar.

"I don't get too fancy and I don't get too esoteric about it," he says. "Someone hands me a good cigar, I take it. And I'll give them one in return. I love that part of it. But I don't want to become a repository of cigar knowledge or anything. I feel about the cigars the way I feel about religion. I don't profess to having a religion because I don't want it to get between me and God, you know?"

The one thing Elizondo will never do is frequent cigar clubs. "It's too trendy, man," he says, his face pinching in displeasure. "It's like guys showing off their penis. My penis is from Cuba. My penis is from Honduras. I'm not interested in that. There's too much posturing, and you can't differentiate the aroma, anyway. I mean, get outta here with this blue haze. Pretension, man, it makes me ralph!"

The sun going down, Elizondo is clearly enjoying this afternoon of unhurried conversation. He spins a tale about the best cigar moment he ever experienced, when he was in Morocco several years ago, making the movie Being Human with Robin Williams. "I was just walking the streets of Rabat, in a marketplace, smoking my cigar and feeling like I'm on another planet. It was a gorgeous night, with a crescent moon, twilight in Arabia with this delicious cigar and then, I heard the call to prayer and I went, 'Man, this is wonderful.'"

The story, or maybe it's the setting sun, makes him reflective. He talks about how he would like to work less and have more time to himself. He laments that he rarely practices his guitar or finds time to play chess. He keeps telling himself that he'll take some time off, go off in the wilderness with his backpack, but there always seems to be another project--a movie or a play--dangled in front of him, too enticing to refuse.

"Once you've been a struggling poor actor, man, it's tough to turn good parts down," he says.

Still, there are days when he looks forward to the end of the run of "Chicago Hope," when his schedule will be less regimented, his time more his own. The show, he admits, sometimes feels like factory work, closer to a 9-to-5 life than he ever thought he'd come. "It's too hard, 15 hours a day. Some actors love that, but I've changed my stripes over the years. I like my work, but I'm not obsessed with it." Even so, he is not yet ready to leave Phillip Watters behind.

"I love this character," he says. "He reminds me of my father. I like the fact that he still functions in spite of his feeling beleaguered. He's very close to my bones, 'cause in a time when people aren't too sure about anything, they can be sure about that guy. There are days when I think it's time to travel on, but on other days I realize I want to unpeel the onion some more."

There is a shimmer in his eyes, the beginnings of tears. "Yeah," he says. "I cry easily these days. I'm touched a lot by simple things. Before, I'd be introspective and contemplate things, but now, instead of sighing, I have a tendency to cry. I've crossed over.

"But you know what the poets say: 'Tears unshed are stones upon the heart.' "

And there is nothing to do but drink in the moment, sit back and simply whisper, "Cool."

Joe Rhodes is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributing editor at US magazine.

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