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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 6)

So, in 1997, Sanchez, Smits, Morales and actor Sonia Braga founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit specifically aimed at providing scholarship monies and career planning to Latino students already in college but who have an eye on a graduate degree in the arts. The foundation is funded through a mix of private, corporate and grant donations that, to date, have provided more than $650,000 in scholarship awards to Latino and Latina students.

"Jimmy is so incredibly committed to giving back to [the Latino] community," explains Felix Sanchez. "He'll roll up his sleeves and work on whatever needs to be done, including picking up the phone and calling donors or prospective donors who haven't responded to a call from anyone else. He's given money, sure, but more importantly, he's given his time and his energy.

"He's a mentor, a true inspiration to the students," Sanchez adds. "They see him as a [Hispanic] role model, a successful role model, but he doesn't downplay the importance of work and education. He puts the responsibility on them to do what needs to be done to make success, to be successful. When he gives advice, he says 'Know your craft. Prepare, prepare, prepare.' "

Esai Morales puts it another way. "One of my favorite lines when talking about the foundation is, 'Violence is free, art you have to pay for.' The foundation and Jimmy have found a way to see that art is paid for."

Morales laughs when told that Smits was hesitant to talk about himself much, even when asked about the foundation. "That's Jimmy! Jimmy hates—and I mean hates—blathering about himself, but the guy can think on his feet and he's a tremendous role model to those in the industry and the kids aspiring to the industry."

Morales pauses for a moment to try to summarize what Smits brings to the foundation besides his name and his checkbook. "Jimmy's quiet, wary and believes in preparation. He's cautious and careful and he'll spend hours perfecting a line or a part, [but] when he walks on stage or on a set, he'll be the most prepared person there. It's what makes him what he is. He's not a big talker—he's actually very quiet—but when he talks, people—even in Hollywood—listen."

If Smits once used a real-life campaign swing and a push to encourage the Hispanic vote to formulate his thoughts on how to change the image of Latinos within the entertainment world, the entertainment world is now offering a venue for changing how viewers look at a Hispanic candidate.

Last summer, while Smits was still in New York performing in Much Ado About Nothing, "West Wing" producer John Wells flew in to chat with Smits about a possible role on the award-winning NBC drama. According to Smits, Wells shared his views about how the power of television and the media could influence young people, create a more realistic awareness of what campaigns are really made up of, and possibly introduce a Latino candidate as a legitimate contender for president of the United States.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow,'" says Smits. "We were talking about concepts, and then in concert with that the power of the media. Just look at the impact that Barack Obama, Henry Cisneros and Colin Powell have had. I admire the hell out of Colin, by the way. I really do. I don't agree with all the politics, but…."

Smits was obviously intrigued with the idea. Now in its sixth season, the sophisticated drama also stars Martin Sheen as the incumbent second-term president, Bradley Whitford and Smits's former "L.A. Law" co-star John Spencer. The show, which holds the record for most Emmys won by a series in a season, which it set in its first year, brought Smits on to play Matt Santos, an idealistic congressman from Texas who's campaigning as the dark-horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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