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Mr. Smits Goes to Washington

Jimmy Smits talks softly and without a big shtick about the education of Hollywood, his love of cigars and a possible (scripted) move to the West Wing.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

That Jimmy Smits isn't wild about interviews is pretty obvious. It's the first sunny day in a month of record rainfall in Southern California, and as he sits with an unobstructed view of the Santa Monica Pier, it's clear that talking about himself is nothing short of painful.

To be fair, Smits doesn't like talking about himself, period, and whether it was sunny or not, he'd still find the concept of fielding questions uncomfortable. For a man who was recently voted one of People magazine's Sexiest Men and has earned 11 Emmy, three Golden Globe and four SAG Award nominations for playing confident, secure—even glib—professionals on the screen and stage, Smits is surprisingly reserved in person, much happier to listen and observe than to parry and thrust words with an interviewer.

"I am," he says, slowly, "cautious."

That's putting it mildly. Still, there's a politeness and graciousness to Smits that one suspects was instilled by his doting mother and never forgotten, at least not in its entirety. But while Smits won't answer questions that make him uneasy, he won't, on the other hand, back down from a subject he feels strongly about. In the mercurial, ever-fluid world of Hollywood, it's also refreshing.

That Tinseltown is full of smoke and mirrors, categories and stereotypes is hardly news. But Jimmy Smits, throughout his career, has managed to avoid the stereotyped roles handed out to Latino actors. Whether it was white-collar lawyer Victor Sifuentes in "L.A. Law," the successful lawyer ensemble show of the late '80s, or his turn as straight-arrow police detective Bobby Simone in "NYPD Blue," or his new role as the conscience-driven presidential candidate Matt Santos in "The West Wing," Smits has carved out an individual space. He has mostly avoided those quickly applied Latino labels—drug lord, gang member, jailed inmate or minimum-wage earner. But whether he's smoking a cigar on a bench after midnight in front of his Los Angeles bar, The Conga Room, or sitting uncomfortably in a hotel room answering those seemingly excruciating questions about his life, it's clear that it would be hard to pigeonhole him, and it would be a mistake to try.

Jimmy Smits has been Jimmy Smits since, well, birth. Jimmy is his given name, and although he had a favorite godmother whose private nickname for him was Jimbo and he did a brief stint as a "Smitty" in high school, there's not a James to be found anywhere near the birth certificate.

His father, Corneles Smits, was originally from Dutch Guiana, the small South American country now known as Suriname. He was a factory manager who, together with his wife, Emilina, raised Jimmy and his two younger sisters all over the 'burbs, 'hoods and boroughs of New York. Jimmy was born in Manhattan, but moved frequently, partly, he remembers, because of his father's health and partly because of his father's love of poker. And cigars.

"Dad's friends from Suriname used to always get together at least once, maybe twice a month to do this poker thing when I was growing up," Smits reminisces. "And it was fun because we would have a lot of food and stuff, but there were always arguments afterward because he would lose his [pay] check. Now, my dad smoked those Tiparillos, but I remember looking at the guys around that table, and there were a couple of guys who were, like, real, real cigar smokers, like the big Churchill types of cigars. I remember my father and these bunch of guys smoking cigarettes and cigars and them having so much fun, laughing. For me, that was kind of 'cigars as male bonding.'"

At one point, when Smits was about nine, his mother took all three kids to live with her family in her native Puerto Rico. The children had traveled to Puerto Rico before and enjoyed it, but he readily admits that he wasn't cool on up and moving to a place so incredibly foreign to a boy who was at this point living in Brooklyn.

"The Puerto Rico sojourn was, growing up, the Christmas [vacation] thing or the summer trip that you always took with your family…it was always there as part of our family experience. My mother's family wanted her closer to them, though, so my father stayed in New York and we all went with my mother and were kind of thrown into school there. It was," Smits says with a smile, "a little traumatic. Looking back, there are a lot of blanks in my life because of what I don't know culturally. I mean, you can probably look back and think about the songs you sang that summer on the beach, right? For me there's just a total blank, because in Puerto Rico we were listening to different music and there was a whole different cultural thing happening there."

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