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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.

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To be fair, Smits doesn't like talking about himself, period, and whether it was sunny or not, he'd still find the concept of fielding questions uncomfortable. For a man who was recently voted one of People magazine's Sexiest Men and has earned 11 Emmy, three Golden Globe and four SAG Award nominations for playing confident, secure—even glib—professionals on the screen and stage, Smits is surprisingly reserved in person, much happier to listen and observe than to parry and thrust words with an interviewer.
"I am," he says, slowly, "cautious."
That's putting it mildly. Still, there's a politeness and graciousness to Smits that one suspects was instilled by his doting mother and never forgotten, at least not in its entirety. But while Smits won't answer questions that make him uneasy, he won't, on the other hand, back down from a subject he feels strongly about. In the mercurial, ever-fluid world of Hollywood, it's also refreshing.
That Tinseltown is full of smoke and mirrors, categories and stereotypes is hardly news. But Jimmy Smits, throughout his career, has managed to avoid the stereotyped roles handed out to Latino actors. Whether it was white-collar lawyer Victor Sifuentes in "L.A. Law," the successful lawyer ensemble show of the late '80s, or his turn as straight-arrow police detective Bobby Simone in "NYPD Blue," or his new role as the conscience-driven presidential candidate Matt Santos in "The West Wing," Smits has carved out an individual space. He has mostly avoided those quickly applied Latino labels—drug lord, gang member, jailed inmate or minimum-wage earner. But whether he's smoking a cigar on a bench after midnight in front of his Los Angeles bar, The Conga Room, or sitting uncomfortably in a hotel room answering those seemingly excruciating questions about his life, it's clear that it would be hard to pigeonhole him, and it would be a mistake to try.
Jimmy Smits has been Jimmy Smits since, well, birth. Jimmy is his given name, and although he had a favorite godmother whose private nickname for him was Jimbo and he did a brief stint as a "Smitty" in high school, there's not a James to be found anywhere near the birth certificate.
His father, Corneles Smits, was originally from Dutch Guiana, the small South American country now known as Suriname. He was a factory manager who, together with his wife, Emilina, raised Jimmy and his two younger sisters all over the 'burbs, 'hoods and boroughs of New York. Jimmy was born in Manhattan, but moved frequently, partly, he remembers, because of his father's health and partly because of his father's love of poker. And cigars.
"Dad's friends from Suriname used to always get together at least once, maybe twice a month to do this poker thing when I was growing up," Smits reminisces. "And it was fun because we would have a lot of food and stuff, but there were always arguments afterward because he would lose his [pay] check. Now, my dad smoked those Tiparillos, but I remember looking at the guys around that table, and there were a couple of guys who were, like, real, real cigar smokers, like the big Churchill types of cigars. I remember my father and these bunch of guys smoking cigarettes and cigars and them having so much fun, laughing. For me, that was kind of 'cigars as male bonding.'"
At one point, when Smits was about nine, his mother took all three kids to live with her family in her native Puerto Rico. The children had traveled to Puerto Rico before and enjoyed it, but he readily admits that he wasn't cool on up and moving to a place so incredibly foreign to a boy who was at this point living in Brooklyn.
"The Puerto Rico sojourn was, growing up, the Christmas [vacation] thing or the summer trip that you always took with your family…it was always there as part of our family experience. My mother's family wanted her closer to them, though, so my father stayed in New York and we all went with my mother and were kind of thrown into school there. It was," Smits says with a smile, "a little traumatic. Looking back, there are a lot of blanks in my life because of what I don't know culturally. I mean, you can probably look back and think about the songs you sang that summer on the beach, right? For me there's just a total blank, because in Puerto Rico we were listening to different music and there was a whole different cultural thing happening there."
That different culture—especially food, music and dance—was to play, 40 years later, a big role in why he chose to invest in The Conga Room, a Los Angeles-area nightclub that features live Latin music four nights a week. Although the music industry's term for much of what plays there might be called "world music," it is, primarily, Latin, and the dance primarily salsa.
A few days after the initial interview, Smits suggests having dinner that Saturday night at the club's restaurant, Boca. Part of the meal is spent reminiscing with the club's majority owner, Brad Gluckstein, about how they'd met and how Smits (as well as others like Jennifer Lopez, Paul Rodriguez and Sheila E.) had become an investor.
Gluckstein, a former real estate executive, admits that it was a tough sell. Throwing his arms wide to indicate the two-story building that is now, on a Saturday night, packed to the rafters with people, Gluckstein says, "This was a Jack LaLanne health club when we first saw it…an abandoned Jack LaLanne health club. Jimmy and I had met [at an event] featuring Latin music, salsa, so I knew that he got the music part of the idea, but it's hard to pitch a concept or investment in a dirty, abandoned building that's got pigeons flying around."
Fortunately, Smits saw what Gluckstein saw, and The Conga Room, with its restaurant, bar area, dance floor, smoking room and myriad little meeting areas, was born in 1998. This was, Smits says, "well before the explosion of popular interest in Latin music that came with Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony." The concept went over big, not only with the heavily Latino population that lives in Los Angeles, but with the jaded, high-brow Hollywood crowd that began to pack the place for the chance to dance to everyone from the Buena Vista Social Club and Tito Puente to Celia Cruz, Carlos Santana and José Feliciano.
Smits admits that looking back on the years when he was a transplanted Brooklyn boy suddenly spending his "wonder years," as he calls them, in Puerto Rico, it would have been tough imagining that the strangely different rhythms and language he was hearing on the radio—a far cry from the Beatles tunes playing back home—would have led to a fierce pride in the music, cuisine and culture that's now such a part of his life as an adult.
The move to Puerto Rico with his mom and sisters, Smits says, was a life-altering one for him, not just physically but in terms of helping to define the man he's become. "Looking back now as an adult? It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, because it really kind of formed the identity that I have and developed my 'Latino-ness' in so many ways—my appreciation of our music, our history, the island's history—in a way that I probably never would have, had we not gone."
Smits took that newly developed "Latino-ness" (including the ability to speak Spanish fluently) to an area known as East New York, a neighborhood that he refers to as, simply, "a tough part of Brooklyn."
Smits began taking drama classes in junior high, as much for the camaraderie among the young fellow thespians and set builders as for the opportunity to appear in Guys and Dolls and Damn Yankees.
By the time Smits got to Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High, though, tough choices at a tough school awaited. He played varsity football but, because there was a conflict between being on both an athletic team and in the drama club, Smits had to make a choice between a letterman's jacket and the opportunity to inflict pain, or multiple wardrobe changes and the opportunity to emote.
He smiles as he describes making the decision. "We were in a tough neighborhood and I'd made varsity on a [championship] football team, and the team was equally known around the city as being sort of tough," says Smits, who at 49 and 6 feet 3 inches still has the long, lean body of a natural athlete. "But you couldn't be in the drama club and [on] the football team because of a conflict in classes, and in football you had to spend more time working out and getting a twenty-four-inch neck!"
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."
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."
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