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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

(continued from page 3)

Apparently, neither was "L.A. Law." At the end of his contract, Smits opted out of returning to the series, choosing instead to do the Blake Edwards comedy Switch opposite Ellen Barkin, followed by Little Havana, a film that garnered Smits critical acclaim if not box office success. Another critically acclaimed film, Mi Familia, was in the works when a role in a television series that he'd already walked away from once popped back up again.

Smits' old friend and former producer, Steven Bochco, had originally written a role in his latest crime drama, "NYPD Blue" with Smits in mind, but Smits had turned it down. David Caruso, the actor who'd taken the character role originally created for Smits, wanted to leave the hit show over both a pay dispute and a desire to try feature films. Smits stepped into the new role of detective Bobby Simone, and once again the public and the critics sat up to take notice.

Playing Simone, a sensitive cop with a tragic personal life, opposite veteran actor Dennis Franz's cranky Andy Sipowicz, Smits garnered so much critical acclaim that people forgot Caruso's character entirely. In his five seasons as Bobby Simone, Smits collected five Emmy nods and won a Golden Globe in 1996, for Best Actor in a Drama. He kept collecting awards even from the grave; after Simone was killed off at the end of Smits's contract, the critics went one step further and awarded Smits the 1999 Humanitas award for his sensitive portrayal of a man facing death with dignity.

Once again, Smits had chosen to leave a hit television series to concentrate on network and studio films, this time working on such low-budget films as the Bono-scripted The Million Dollar Hotel, opposite Mel Gibson; the Price of Glory, a dark, gritty drama about an ex-boxer who trains his three sons to take his place in the ring; and Bless the Child, a supernatural thriller, opposite Kim Basinger.

Although Smits was working steadily, none of the films were blockbusters. Then, in 2002, came a call from Lucasfilm. It seems that George Lucas's longtime casting director, Robin Gurland, had suggested Smits to Lucas for a role in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, and Lucas loved the idea.

"I'd thought of Jimmy for the role before George Lucas had even confirmed the character's appearance," said Gurland at the time. "Then, completely independently, his agents let me know that he would love to be involved in a Star Wars project. It worked out great."

The role was a small one, that of Senator Bail Organa, the adoptive father to Princess Leia, but it was one that Smits wasn't about to turn down, even when Lucas called with a gravely worded, preemptive warning to the actor.

There was to be no light saber.

When Lucas called, Smits says, he began by praising Smits's work in a variety of projects, but immediately cut to the chase. "He said, 'I've got to tell you now that there's no light saber.' I said, 'Why did you feel the need to tell me this?' and Lucas replied, 'Because that's the first thing that people always want to know…what color is my saber?' "

Smits laughs out loud telling this story, but also admits to having been a big, big fan of Star Wars and of Lucas; being included in the trilogy was, for him, more like playtime than work. Something in the play-as-work approach must have worked for him because he's back as Bail Organa in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which opens in mid-May.

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