That Jimmy Smits isn't wild about interviews is pretty obvious. It's the first sunny day in a month of record rainfall in Southern California, and as he sits with an unobstructed view of the Santa Monica Pier, it's clear that talking about himself is nothing short of painful.
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."
The role was a small one, that of Senator Bail Organa, the adoptive father to Princess Leia, but it was one that Smits wasn't about to turn down, even when Lucas called with a gravely worded, preemptive warning to the actor.
There was to be no light saber.
When Lucas called, Smits says, he began by praising Smits's work in a variety of projects, but immediately cut to the chase. "He said, 'I've got to tell you now that there's no light saber.' I said, 'Why did you feel the need to tell me this?' and Lucas replied, 'Because that's the first thing that people always want to know…what color is my saber?' "
Smits laughs out loud telling this story, but also admits to having been a big, big fan of Star Wars and of Lucas; being included in the trilogy was, for him, more like playtime than work. Something in the play-as-work approach must have worked for him because he's back as Bail Organa in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which opens in mid-May.
Like all Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith's plot is closely guarded, and Smits is careful not to spill any beans. He does, however, admit that his character, while still that of a statesman, does get to finally see a little action. "Let me just say that there's a speeder involved," Smits grins.
Smits admits that while he took the original film offer without knowing anything about what the role would ultimately entail, the opportunity to work with Lucas was a no-brainer. "I was fascinated not just by what we were doing every day, but about the life that George has led. He has pushed the envelope in terms of the technical aspects of this business, and to look at the way he pushed Panavision and Sony to construct this digital camera…he's revolutionized the way we perceive or are going to perceive cinema in the future."
Following Revenge of the Sith, Smits returned to the stage, a move and a medium that, he says, "always calls to my heart. I am someone who's left roles, big roles, to take other, smaller things, and I've never regretted it."
He had a starring role in the 2004 Shakespeare in the Park presentation of Much Ado About Nothing, which was almost immediately followed by the leading role in the Pulitzer Prize—winning Anna in the Tropics.
Written by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, Anna in the Tropics is a story about a family-owned cigar factory where, while hand-rolling Flor del Cielo cigars, the workers listen to the new lector (Smits) hired to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to them.
Did Smits get to pick out the cigars he smoked on stage?
"Yes…and no. When we first started doing the play, we had technical advisers—cigar rollers, or torcedors—come in, and they made recommendations. Then there was a place in Princeton [New Jersey] called A Little Piece of Cuba that was a cigar joint. I got to go and pick out cigars that they could afford for the production and that I liked. So in Princeton, I got to smoke Buteras," Smits says. "And in New York, Shermans, a short called the Harrington. The Sherman family brought a box of them to me as a gift, and the Harrington has a little sweetness to it, so I used that in the play."
Smits confesses that while he doesn't specifically remember ever swiping any of his father's Tiparillos as a kid, he remembers buying cigars for the first time to celebrate his daughter's birth. "I like short smokes," Smits continues. "And I started off smoking Davidoffs…I like a cigar that has a little sweetness to it. But my attorney, Tom—he and I were at [an event] recently and he brought some Montecristos…now that was a friggin' good cigar!"
Smits uses our visit to The Conga Room as the perfect excuse to light up another Montecristo. We're in The Havana Room, the indoor smoking room at the club—there's also an outdoor patio—and Smits is clearly relaxed and at home.
When a couple at the club come by to introduce themselves and tell Smits that they're big fans, Smits is gracious, offering his hand and a few words about how he hopes that they've enjoyed themselves. With the club's staff—whether security guard or valet attendant, cocktail waitress or band member—he's even less guarded. He greets many by name, slaps hands while walking by, or, in the case of a singer who's taking a break from the stage, a slap on the back and a warm compliment.
And the compliment is well deserved. If the food at the restaurant is passable, the music—and subsequent dancing—at the club is fabulous. The place is loud with laughter, there's always music playing, both live and recorded, and the mojitos and "congapolitans" flow. It is, Smits says, "one of our favorite places in Los Angeles…and not just because we're investors."
The "we" refers to him and actor Wanda De Jesus, his girlfriend and partner of 15 years. Tiny, she barely reaches Smits's chest, but it's obvious in the way that Smits's voice softens and his face warms when he talks about her that he's still, well, smitten. "We've been together fifteen years. We're more married than most people that we know that have been married…and divorced," he says simply.
"I'm very lucky to have her in my life. I don't know if it works the other way around," he says, laughing. "I lack a lot of communicative skills and I constantly have to work on that. I'm glad that she's been around to help nurture that and to put up with me."
The two met while both were doing stage work in New York. "We traveled in the same circles," Smits explains. "Being Latino actors in New York, you kind of see the same group of people around all the time. They lump everybody [Latino] together. We had [mutual] actor friends, so we knew each other as casual acquaintances before ever working together."
Being in the same industry, Smits says, is a positive. "It's great in the sense that you really have somebody to bounce off of in terms of creativity, who knows the 'creative speak' that a layman might not know when you're researching a character or when you have to make a choice on [a part]. There's a real beauty in that. Although I might be more in the public eye right now, we've both worked pretty consistently, and I think there's a piece of both of us in each other's characters. There's a real kindred thing about the process, in what we both feel about the art and, both being Latinos, how we feel about the community."
The "community" to which Smits refers is the Latino community and, specifically, the tiny community of Latinos in the entertainment industry. If there is, Smits says, the appearance of closed doors and glass ceilings to all those brave enough to try entering the entertainment industry, for Latinos the door is padlocked and the ceiling crafted from safety glass.
This is a hot, hot topic for Smits and one where he's put his money—and his name—where his mouth is.
In 1996, while in San Antonio, Texas, on a swing tour for the Clinton re-election campaign, Smits and fellow actor Esai Morales began to question whether, aside from photo opportunities, their participation in the campaign event made any real difference to the Latino community that they were hoping to reach. Also on that campaign tour was Felix Sanchez, a Washington, D.C., attorney and political consultant.
"We were on our way to the Alamo, I think, for a rally," Smits remembers. "And we began talking about voter registration and young people. We shared stories about education, and the topic [turned to] 'How are we going to get to the next level and get more Latinos into the arts, into media and into positions of power?' We were talking about studio executives, scriptwriting, people behind the camera, and the [subject] kept going back to education [and] young people moving on to the next level.
"There's this whole validation and confirmation," Smits continues, "that comes with an MFA, a degree from Yale or USC film school or UCLA. There's a certain cache. So if there are [Latino] college students already interested in the arts that have demonstrated skill, and if we could help facilitate them getting into these schools, help provide funds to those that are already there to continue, we could tangibly effect change."
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.
The role has Smits's character tackling real-life campaign subjects as touchy as stem cell research, farm subsidies, women's rights, education and the role of fathers in "family values"—all subjects that will get the naturally quiet Smits into lively debate in real life—while stumping against a mixed bag of presidential hopefuls, including veteran actor Alan Alda as Sen. Arnold Vinick, the Republican candidate.
The show, known for its strong political story lines and an insider's view of political life in D.C.—or at least as much as Hollywood can grasp—has crafted a 2005 story line that's got viewers and Beltway pollsters glued to their seats. Show creator Wells has staged a fictional political race that could determine this fall whether it's Alda or Smits who will be inaugurated.
Although Wells insists that he isn't taking cues from actual events in the nation's capital (such as last November's election of a Republican president), could the show's GOP candidate be headed to the White House? Not if you go by the results of a recent viewer survey. In early March, real-life pollster John Zogby did an online interactive poll with viewers that saw Smits's character, Matt Santos, winning the fictional election by a landslide. Smits just laughs when asked if he should now be addressed as "Mr. President," and says that while he's heard the poll results and is pleased that viewers are that interested in the Santos character, he truly doesn't know what Wells and the show's writers have in store for him next season.
Since the show hasn't been officially picked up yet, that's assuming that there even is a next season.
"Am I the next president? I don't know, and I'm not even clear that they know. It would," he muses, smiling, "make for a great story line, though, wouldn't it?"
It's approaching one in the morning, and Smits decides to call it an evening at The Conga Room. Still smoking his Montecristo, he wanders out to the curb to have the valet pull his guest's car up and, while waiting, drops down onto one of L.A.'s Rapid Transit District bus benches. Even at this hour, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, Wilshire Boulevard is busy. An LAPD police car with two officers cruises the street, slowing noticeably to give a once-over to the small crowd that's standing outside the club. They slow even further to check out the tall, well-dressed man lounging on the bus bench, long legs extended into the street, and then, in a moment of recognition, nearly stop.
Behind them, an RTD bus heading east approaches slowly, but passes by without stopping to pick up Smits and his guest.
"I guess we don't look like we're headed downtown," Smits jokes.
No, Jimmy, yours is definitely an uptown trip. Maybe even to the White House.
Seattle-based author Betsy Model is a former NPR/BBC correspondent who contributes to more than 30 domestic and international publications.