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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 2)

When asked how often he got called a sissy, he laughs out loud. "Oh, man, a lot! I had to give up the jacket, [and] you couldn't sit at the lunch table with the guys."

When, a few months later, the entire team came to one of the drama club's plays and took up the two front rows, Smits confesses that he feared the worst. "I just knew, knew, that they were going to razz me, throw tomatoes or something like that, but they…acknowledged me. They stood up at the end and acknowledged not only me but [the play], and I could see in their eyes and faces that they realized that 'you really do like this stuff and you really are good at it.' It was validation for me. Serious validation."

Smits credits drama teachers at both Thomas Jefferson High and at Brooklyn College for not only being mentors and advisers, but for also opening up a new experience for him: live performances. It was, Smits says, not just the thrill of seeing quality stage performances in New York, but of observing two of his role models, Raul Julia and James Earl Jones, perform live and to thunderous applause. "I was able to identify finally with people who were similar to me that were successful," Smits recalls. "And it was almost like they helped give me permission to aspire to their level. In Raul's case it was because he was Hispanic, and Jimmy [James Earl Jones] is a minority, a person of color."

By this time, Smits was hooked on acting and, without telling his parents, had gone from having a single major in education to a double major in education and drama. Out of an extended family of 20 cousins, Smits was the only one to attend college and, to fairly traditional parents—now divorced—who thought their only son was going to become a teacher, voluntarily choosing to study drama came as a surprise.

Another surprise had already happened to the young student; the 19-year-old Smits and his girlfriend, Barbara, became parents to their first child, Tiana. With grandparents helping to raise his daughter, Smits not only worked enough hours to support his young family, but finished his degree at Brooklyn College and was subsequently invited to apply to Cornell University's graduate program. He earned his master of fine arts from Cornell in 1982, moved back to New York to take whatever work would support his family and begin earning him credentials, and, within a year or so, married Barbara and had his second child, a son named Joaquin.

After Smits did off-Broadway plays and New York Shakespeare Festival productions, other opportunities began to beckon him to Hollywood. His first "almost break" came in 1984 as Don Johnson's vice squad partner in the pilot for "Miami Vice." He was killed off in the first 15 minutes, but, as Smits says, smiling, "for fifteen minutes, I looked really, really good."

By 1986, he'd made his first feature film, the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines comedy Running Scared, and, that same year, was asked to audition for a new drama series being cast by Steven Bochco, creator of the then wildly popular cop drama "Hill Street Blues." The role he tried out for was Victor Sifuentes, a public defender who, although passionate about social issues, is lured into working for a large, high-priced Los Angeles law firm. Smits flubbed the audition in New York, but was so determined to win the part that he flew to Los Angeles and auditioned again. This time he nailed it.

The show, "L.A. Law," debuted in the fall of 1986 and was a massive hit. Handsome, sexy and portraying a smart, sensitive, white-collar professional with ethics, Smits garnered not only a whole lot of predominantly female fans, but six consecutive Emmy nominations. In 1990, he won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor.

During his five-year run on "L.A. Law," Smits would take other projects, mostly feature films, as shooting schedules would allow; he filmed both Hotshot and The Believers in 1987 and, in 1989, made Old Gringo, opposite Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.

By this time, Smits and Barbara had also divorced, leaving Smits a part-time, long-distance dad. Smits is close to both kids, now adults and both still living on the East Coast, but he admits that it was tough on everyone at the time. "Was I a good dad? You would have to ask them that," Smits replies softly. "My heart tells me that I've tried to do the best that I could under the circumstances. You know, when they were growing up, no matter how much I was on the phone—of course, that's just me doing the guilt shit on myself—it never seemed like it was enough. No matter how many times I would leave the FOX lot on a Friday night to catch the red-eye to go and spend the weekend to get that one weekend a month…it was never enough."

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