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.
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"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.