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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

(continued from page 2)

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."

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