Advertisement
Share

Keeping Close to the Street : When It Comes to Being a Role Model, ‘Miami Vice’ ‘s Edward James Olmos, From East Los Angeles, May Be the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business

Jeff Meyers is a Times staff writer

Sunday Mass on the indoor basketball court at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall is being presided over by Father Richard Estrada, a joyous soul who is giving his sermon directly beneath the backboard. Watching him perform allegorical layups are nearly 300 teen-age boys, most of them Latino, most doing time for major-league offenses from murder to armed robbery. Few are happy about attending church at 8 in the morning. But there they are, sitting rigidly in metal folding chairs, forced into attentiveness by a dozen ever-serious counselors who take a dim view of slouching, squirming and snoozing.

“Man, let’s get this thing over with,” a boy named Carlos says to himself as Estrada discusses the issues of sin and redemption with his captive, if not altogether receptive, audience. Bored, Carlos casually cranks his head toward the sidelines and catches sight of--"Oh, man, I can’t believe it!"--the guy who plays the brooding, mysterious Lt. Martin Castillo on the hit television show “Miami Vice.”

Suddenly, Carlos has a new attitude about church, but not everybody immediately shares his excitement. When Father Estrada begins introducing his “special guest,” some of the hard cases get an unmistakable look in their eyes: Who wants to hear another lecture by another cop, especially a fictional cop with an icy screen persona?

Advertisement

But the priest warms up the crowd. “He was born in East Los Angeles,” he says. That gets them going. Carlos pumps a fist, and others nod approvingly. The counselors are getting nervous, their stares beginning to crisscross the crowd like searchlights.

When silence returns, Lt. Castillo strides to the altar and takes the hand-held microphone from the priest. For a moment, he eyeballs the crowd with that inscrutable Castillo look. With his dark suit and dark looks punctuated by a thick mustache, he’s dead on as the stern, almost menacing authority figure. The audience sighs collectively: Here it comes, an hour of social-worker rap.

But then an uncharacteristic smile creases Castillo’s face. “I’m from 1st and Indiana,” he says warmly. “Good to see all you home boys.”

The solemn Lt. Castillo melts away and is replaced by the perpetually festive Edward James Olmos, 39, part charmer, part performer, part earth father. Carlos and a few others applaud and inch forward in their chairs. The counselors shift anxiously from one foot to the other and look on disapprovingly as the boys begin to loosen up.

Then Olmos politely tells the counselors to back off, to move away from the prisoners so he can make eye contact with everybody in the audience. The gym buzzes with whispers of disbelief. For an awkward moment, the counselors look at one another, at the boys, at Olmos, who stands in front of the group with a self-assured smile, and then they slowly leave their sentry positions. Olmos calls it “equalizing the room,” putting everybody on the same level. From then on, the boys are his.

“I’m no different from anyone in this room,” he begins. “Trust me when I tell you, man, I didn’t come out of my mother’s womb saying, ‘To be or not to be.’ I worked hard at being an actor, but I’m not special or more talented or smarter than you.”

He begins to prance like a raven-haired Phil Donahue, talking to them as an instant best friend. “Did I get more chances than you when I was growing up? Not on your life, man. The only thing I did that you didn’t was practice the things I liked. Every day. Seven days a week. And now they’re giving me awards and paying me tons of money for doing what I like to do. If you work hard, stick to it and practice, you’ll succeed. I guarantee it.”

Olmos is being carinoso (“gentle and loving”), getting the boys to laugh and think and giving them some hope that their lives can turn around. They quickly respond, asking him questions and answering his. Even the counselors relax, their gazes fixed on Olmos, not their prisoners.

But just as Olmos really gets rolling, telling how it took 14 years to get his first serious paycheck as an actor, Estrada interrupts. Time is up. Olmos pleads for a few more minutes. The audience moans. He’s been talking less than half an hour. Estrada explains that schedules are immutable at Central. Olmos reluctantly relinquishes the mike, bids the boys a hello from their brothers in other prisons he has visited, tells them to write him.

Afterward, as the boys march single file out of the gym, Estrada shakes his head like a favorite uncle. “Eddie really thinks he can change things around here,” the priest says with affection. When he looks up, Olmos is at it again, bending

regulations by shaking hands with the boys.

As the depressing gray walls of Juvenile Hall disappear behind him, Olmos settles into the back seat of a black limousine. Its luxury is jarring after the jail visit, but the car was loaned to him by the Pepsi soft-drink company, for which he serves as an unpaid spokesman on such community promotions as anti-drug campaigns and voter-registration drives.

On this visit to Southern California, he will speak at a San Diego function for migrant farm workers on Friday morning, then drive up to Los Angeles for an evening fund-raiser at UCLA. Also during the weekend, he will address several Latino community functions, squeeze in his godson’s first communion and attend late-night brainstorming sessions on helping the needy. With such a tight schedule, Olmos’ limo becomes as much a refuge as a means of transportation, a place where he can find time to telephone family, friends and associates.

As the limousine arrives at Olmos’ next appointment, in Beverly Hills, he finishes his last call--to his mother. Far less intense than he was with the boys, he speaks softly to her for a few minutes, hangs up and says, “I’ve been going pretty fast. I’m real tired.” But as the car comes to a stop, Olmos suddenly perks up. It’s show time.

Edward James Olmos, home boy from 1st and Indiana, is running on a fast track these days. The role he landed on “Miami Vice” two years ago has vastly increased his name recognition, and the Emmy and Golden Globe awards he won for best supporting actor in a drama series have gilded an already impressive professional reputation. But his is a track quite different from what might be expected of a young actor working up from a hit play (“Zoot Suit”), to a critically acclaimed film (“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez”), to a television series watched by 20 million Americans a week.

In an industry with few substantive roles for Mexican-Americans, Olmos refuses--sometimes at an enormous loss to his potential income--to act in films that do not portray Latinos favorably. He has lent his Hollywood aura to social causes instead of career advancement, using it to gain access to corporations and philanthropists who can underwrite his projects. And he maintains a breakneck schedule of public appearances designed to bolster Chicano pride and to inspire the young. To most Anglos, Olmos may be just another actor, but among Latino audiences, his exposure on “Miami Vice” and his ceaseless support of Latino causes have made him one of the most popular entertainers in the country.

It is a path that has taken him, during the last eight years, to juvenile halls and prisons throughout the country; from Latino community events to upscale fund-raisers, and from corporate board rooms to inner-city barrios. Always, it seems, it is a path that eventually takes him back to Boyle Heights, the neighborhood where he grew up. “Eddie doesn’t come across as larger than life,” one friend says, “because he sticks to his East L.A. roots.” Father Estrada from Juvenile Hall sees it much the same way. “Eddie emanates that earthy East L.A. kid,” Estrada says. “What he said to these boys today, it was very easy for them to connect to.”

The path also, on occasion, leads to Beverly Hills. Olmos is met by Dr. Jack Magit, who became known as “the Flying Doctor” when he airlifted medical supplies to Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa. They are going to discuss fund-raising strategy for rebuilding Mexico City’s General Hospital, which was severely damaged by the earthquake last September. Joining them are the hospital’s director, Dr. Rodolfo Diaz-Perches, and Dr. Ronald Katz, chief of staff at UCLA Medical Center. Diaz-Perches reads a manifesto describing their goal of building a world-class, computerized medical research center. Olmos suggests a clarification in the wording. Everyone agrees, then they sit down for lunch. During Mass at Juvenile Hall, Olmos had taken the communion wafer; now he eats bagels and lox.

Since the earthquake, Olmos has helped form the Mexican Earthquake Relief Fund and has traveled to Mexico City six times to help injured children get prosthetic devices and reconstructive plastic surgery. He calls the quake’s victims “people with a sense of hopelessness beyond anyone’s imagination,” and says he has heard from doctors that the disaster killed 100,000, not just the official estimate of 9,000. On one visit to the capital, in April, he was introduced to Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum.

Hammer had flown medical supplies to Mexico City within hours of the quake and has been active in relief efforts since. He was introduced to Olmos by state Sen. Art Torres, a boyhood friend of the actor. Olmos quickly agreed to join forces with the 88-year-old industrialist, telling Hammer that he, Eddie Olmos, would complete the work on the hospital if Hammer was “not around to do it himself.”

Pretty cheeky talk for a home boy, but Hammer takes him seriously. “It’s wonderful that he’s dedicating himself like that,” Hammer says. Nobody who has known Olmos for a long time seems surprised by his commitment. “If Eddie believes in something,” says film director Robert M. Young, “he has the kind of courage, chutzpah and arrogance to go all the way with it.”

On a balmy spring Saturday, Olmos, wearing a white linen suit and a white shirt open at the neck, is driven to Boyle Heights to visit his close friend, Edmund Rodriguez, and his wife, Rita. They own a small, neat, one-story house on Cheesbrough Lane only a few doors from the wood-frame two-story home where Olmos lived until he was 16. Across the way is El Mercado, a crowded marketplace on 1st Street steeped in mariachi music and the aroma of refried beans and corn tortillas. A poster in the window of a butcher shop advertises cabezas de borrego -- “lamb heads"--for 59 cents a pound. Standing on the sidewalk, Olmos sweeps his dark brown eyes around the old neighborhood. “This is it, man,” he says wistfully.

Olmos is the second son of a mailman father and a hospital-worker mother who, he says affectionately, “holds the hands of the people as they’re passing away.” Four generations, beginning with his mother’s grandparents, lived in the house on Cheesbrough Lane. Often they were jammed together, as many as 11 people, including Eddie and his six siblings, in only two bedrooms. Regardless, Olmos says, “it was a beautiful place. There was a lot of love in that house, and the kids were taught the difference between right and wrong. We were all very close.” Today, Olmos says, he has never been apart from his own family, his wife and two boys, for more than five days.

Olmos walks toward the corner, passing a vacant lot next door to where the original home stood before the two-story house was built. Despite the original home’s dirt floor, Olmos remembers, his grandmother still swept out the living room. Today, he lives in a waterfront home in Miami and also maintains a home in the San Fernando Valley. “Sometimes, it doesn’t seem real,” says Olmos. “It’s a good thing I drive a ’69 Volkswagen--it keeps me in touch.”

When Olmos gets to the corner, a young tough glares at him with a “don’t I know you?” expression. Olmos points to himself. “ ‘Miami Vice’? The guy who never smiles?” The kid’s face turns on. “OK! The lieutenant!” he shouts. Soon, Olmos is getting writer’s cramp signing what he calls “autographs as long as ‘War and Peace.’ ” Some are for middle-aged fans and teen-agers, but most are for children. He often kneels on the sidewalk, writing notes or talking to kids who are too young to understand “Sesame Street,” let alone “Miami Vice.” One of his sisters, Eleanor Santillan, smiles and says, “I always know where to find Eddie--I just look for the crowd.”

Forty-five minutes later, Olmos breaks away and points to an alley that’s linked to similar passages throughout the neighborhood. “Everything was settled in these alleys when we were kids,” he says. “We had some bad-ass fights.” Olmos won’t elaborate on the kind of trouble he got into (“It was nothing like knocking off a gas station”), but he’s still thankful he wasn’t caught. “I knew better,” he says, “but I still did it. That’s the way the streets are.” His friend, screenwriter Robert Hoffman, believes that every time Olmos talks to prison inmates, “he realizes, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”

Art Torres, the state senator for the district that includes Boyle Heights, attended Montebello High with Olmos. He remembers Olmos as being “a little bit crazier than I was,” a kid who seemed to take delight in wearing jerseys emblazoned with the name of rival Garfield High. As seniors, Torres and Olmos ran against each other for school president. “It was a spirited campaign,” Torres says, tongue in cheek. “I won, but in retrospect, I think I lost. That sent me off on a political career, and Eddie had the good fortune to go into the entertainment business.”

Had Olmos won the election, it might not have changed politics as much as rock ‘n’ roll in Los Angeles. In the mid-1950s, Olmos listened to rock on radio station KFWB and fancied himself as another Elvis. When rock clubs began to multiply on the Sunset Strip in the early ‘60s, Olmos formed his own groups, most notably Eddie and the Pacific Ocean. “He had to--nobody else would hire him,” teases Pepe Serna, his best friend. Playing clubs like Gazzarri’s, Whisky a Go-Go and the Batter’s Box, Olmos established himself, Hoffman says, as “one of the kings of Sunset Strip.”

Hoffman first saw him at the Factory in the mid-'60s. “He looked like an American Indian,” Hoffman recalls. “He had hair down to the middle of his back and a suede jacket with long fringe. He played real hard rock, primitive sounds, not my taste, but he had this vitality and charisma that was riveting.”

Kaija Keel, daughter of actor Howard Keel, obviously agreed. She was 17 and fell in love. Friends tell various stories about the first time she brought the long-haired Chicano to her Beverly Hills home to meet her father, a major star in musical-comedies of the ‘50s. Some say Keel wasn’t too thrilled. Others describe how Olmos peeled the leaves off an artichoke to find what it was he was supposed to eat. But Keel doesn’t remember any of that.

“I’m a stern-looking old geezer,” says Keel, now a regular on the “Dallas” television series, “so all those things might be a figment of somebody’s imagination. Eddie was reared to be nice. He had good manners. I knew he was a rock singer, but I played some crap houses myself when I was getting started. I liked Eddie, and the longer I got to know him and saw how hard he worked, the better I liked him. He and Kaija have been married 18 years, so he must be doing something right.”

It was while Olmos was singing that he began to understand something about himself: The sadder the song, the more involved with the lyrics he became. “I found myself portraying roles while I was singing,” he says. Helping an actor friend one day, Olmos was reading a play aloud. Suddenly, it came to him: “I realized it was easier for me to read the line than sing it.” It would take him six years to get his Screen Actors Guild card, another eight years to make any significant money acting.

In 1973, Olmos was still singing at night and delivering antique furniture during the day. He was also doing Equity-waiver productions in whatever spare time he could find, playing in what he calls “brick-and-stick” theaters, named for the weapons that audiences supposedly needed to fight off the rats and cockroaches. But, ironically, it was at a rock club that he was noticed--by Myrna Isenberg, a theatrical agent with the Murry Weintraub Agency. “Right away, she knew there was something about Eddie, something about the way he presented himself on stage, and she felt he would work and work a lot,” says Miriam Baum, who became Olmos’ agent after Isenberg died of cancer in 1979.

Olmos broke into television doing bit parts on series and immediately earned a reputation as a perfectionist. On a “Kojak” episode, he played a bartender in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He had one line. The late director, David Friedkin, called for action, the cameras rolled, Telly Savalas walked into the bar and asked Olmos a question. Olmos was supposed to answer. There was an unscheduled pause, then Olmos said, “Cut,” and told the astonished director: “This guy’s a white cop. If I was a Puerto Rican bartender, I wouldn’t tell him anything.”

“That’s Eddie, that’s who he is,” says Serna, a character actor with nearly 30 feature-film credits. “If something isn’t real, Eddie can’t say it.”

Yet at 31, after years of rock clubs and low-pay or no-pay theater, Olmos hadn’t graduated from TV walk-ons and was still delivering furniture to support his young family. He was in the middle of his appointed rounds when he took a break to audition at the Mark Taper Forum for an Equity-waiver workshop production about Latinos. At a cattle call with a few hundred other hopefuls, he read for the role of El Pachuco in “Zoot Suit.” Olmos sweated through four callbacks over three months before he nailed down the part.

The street-theater musical by Luis Valdez was supposed to run for 10 days. Olmos had other ideas. “The first day of rehearsals,” says Serna, who was cast as Joey, “Eddie and I were sitting outside, and he was excited as usual. He said, ‘This is going to be a great play. It will run here for a year, then we’ll go to Broadway, and then we’ll make the movie.’ I thought he was crazy.”

Serna has since learned to take Olmos more seriously. The original show is now referred to as “Baby Zoot Suit.” When it grew up, it ran for a year and a half in Los Angeles. Although it closed after only seven weeks on Broadway, Olmos received a Tony Award nomination, and the play was eventually made into a movie.

Olmos says the play “changed the course of my life.” It gave him a cause and a direction. “Zoot Suit” was the first real play about real Latinos, he says. “You can’t count ‘West Side Story.’ That’s like saying ‘South Pacific’ was about the culture of the Polynesians.” The swaggering El Pachuco, which refers to a “cool dude,” became a positive role model for Latinos, who had commonly been portrayed on stage and in film as bumbling Panchos, crazed drug dealers or common cutthroats.

When Latino audiences began cheering for his character, Olmos began to realize he was making an impact. “I saw the strength in this Pachuco,” he says, “so the responsibility of what I was doing hit me over the head.” From then on, as his identification with the character grew, he became more and more involved with the causes of his people, feeling, says Edmund Rodriguez, “that the image of the Hispanic community is resting on his shoulders. It’s a greater weight than most actors have to carry.”

Richard Coca, a 23-year-old Latino actor with credits that include “Hill Street Blues” and “Knight Rider,” was a student at Woodrow Wilson High when he saw “Zoot Suit” in 1979. For the first time, he says, “I saw a Chicano in a realistic role. The whole show affected me, Eddie in particular. I thought, ‘I’m a Chicano kid, and I can grow up to be an actor.’ It inspired me.”

When “Zoot Suit” closed on Broadway, Olmos was asked to stay and play a mystical American Indian in “Wolfen,” a supernatural horror movie starring Albert Finney. It was a meaty role--tight close-ups, high intensity--that would have given him far greater exposure than “Zoot Suit.” But he turned it down, insisting that the producers try to cast a real Indian.

“Eddie made them look at Indians all over the country,” recalls agent Miriam Baum. When the producers came up dry and went back to Olmos, he wouldn’t say yes to them until they got the approval of the American Indian Movement. AIM did approve, and he received a humanitarian award from a group of Indian actors three years later.

It’s one thing for a major star to turn down roles for moral and ethical reasons, but it’s a much rarer commodity for an unestablished actor, and it has been an Olmos trademark. “I can only go where my passion lies,” says Olmos, who has rejected parts in “Scarface,” “Red Dawn,” “Mystic Warrior,” “Firestarter” and the recent “Band of the Hand,” among other films--either because of their violence or their portrayal of minorities. “But Eddie’s the kind of guy who doesn’t think it’s wrong for his friends to work in those movies if that’s what they want,” Serna says. “Even though he didn’t want to be in ‘Scarface,’ he helped cast it, and I got 25 weeks of work.”

When Latinos talk about honesty in the way they’re portrayed in the dramatic arts, “Zoot Suit” is the play they mention, and “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is the film. Olmos starred in both. In “Zoot Suit,” El Pachuco evolved into the play’s most important character, who, at Olmos’ suggestion, wound up staying on stage for the entire show. “They never intended for Eddie to become a star,” Serna says. “But it just happened. A nobody came along and turned into a somebody.”

While “Zoot Suit” was a parade that allowed him to strut his talent, “Cortez” became a crusade that disrupted his life, his family and his career for nearly two years. The screenplay, the real-life story of an unjustly accused Mexican-American farmhand in 1901 Texas, touched him. He especially loved the theme: a misunderstanding--as simple as a man’s inability to make himself clear because of the language barrier--results in murder and imprisonment. The project became Olmos’ passion, even his obsession.

Moctesuma Esparza, a producer aligned with the National Endowment for the Humanities, had seen Olmos in “Zoot Suit” and “thought he’d make a wonderful Cortez.” So even before he had hired a director, Esparza gave the part to Olmos, who became a catalyst for what the Catholic bishop of El Paso, Tex., after seeing a screening, would later anoint as “ La Mision "--the effort by Olmos and the so-called Cortez Gang to keep alive a socially important film. “We called it ‘the film that wouldn’t die,’ ” says Daniel A. Haro, a member of the group.

Olmos brought in Bob Young, a director with credits that included “Short Eyes” and “Alambrista!” Then he helped cast the movie, co-wrote the music, did script revisions and received post-production credit, along with two others, as an associate producer. “Eddie got more involved than anyone else because he gave more of himself, more of his time,” Esparza says.

But Olmos’ contribution to the movie lasted beyond the day the cameras stopped. After the film’s debut on Public Broadcasting Service in the summer of 1982, Embassy Films picked it up for theatrical release but then shelved it a year later. Olmos and co-star Tom Bower essentially took over distribution, using a grass-roots marketing technique developed at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.

“Eddie seized a great opportunity,” says Bob Hoffman. “It wasn’t a self-serving kind of thing. He understood the significance of the film,” that it could be a vehicle for raising Latino pride. Hoffman was in charge of booking “Cortez.” Haro, an activist lawyer who had worked on civil rights causes in Tuscon, was the advance man, preceding Olmos and Bower into cities before the film’s opening. In two years, they visited dozens of cities, sleeping on strangers’ floors and in cheap hotels.

While he was traveling, Olmos was able to tie in openings of “Cortez” in cities where he had already scheduled speaking engagements in public schools and prisons. At Rikers Island, a maximum-security prison off the Manhattan shore, he spoke to 1,800 convicts--juveniles and adults--for nearly three hours. Still, one prisoner, a kid serving three concurrent life sentences, wasn’t moved by Olmos’ optimistic message, Haro recalls. “He said to Eddie, ‘I’m here for life, so I don’t want to hear what you’re trying to tell me.’ But Eddie pressed on, and by the end of the talk, finally cracked him. The kid was completely won over.”

Not everybody connected with the film always appreciated the time Olmos spent with prisoners who wouldn’t have a free weekend for years. “We had no time and no money, and here’s Eddie talking to guys who weren’t going to see the film,” Young says. “I got angry at him for that. But Eddie was going to do it anyway. He just said, ‘That’s what you do.’ ”

During the two years he dedicated himself to “Cortez,” Olmos refused every offer of work, as much as an estimated $2 million worth, according to those familiar with his career. “I wasn’t sure if it was right for him to give up all that work,” says Miriam Baum, who was still his agent then, “but I believed in him.” Olmos’ friends held a fund-raiser to help pay his travel expenses, but very little other money was coming in. “He was completely busted,” Young says. “There was a lot of tension at home.” Despite problems, says Danny Haro, “if Eddie got upset or depressed, it didn’t last long. He always said he was feeding off the energy he was getting back from

people.”

In August, 1984, four episodes into the first season of “Miami Vice,” executive producer Michael Mann needed a replacement for Gregory Sierra, who had left the show for personal reasons. Mann wanted Olmos. “I kind of looked at him as being the show’s Jesuit, a character reflecting Eddie’s own social values and attitudes,” says Mann, who had known Olmos since “Zoot Suit.” By this time, a healthy “Cortez” was beginning to earn back some of its $1.3-million in production costs (to date the film has grossed nearly $1 million, according to Hoffman), and Olmos was preparing to immerse himself in projects close to his heart. Although the role of Lt. Castillo interested him, the constraints of a weekly television series turned him off. He repeatedly said no until Mann reportedly gave in to his demand of an “out” clause that allows him to take a leave from the show with 90 days’ notice. Also, Olmos says, Mann countered his objections to the violence by asking him to help improve the quality of the scripts and promised him that shooting schedules would be flexible enough to allow him to actively pursue his causes.

“There were certain provisions Eddie and I agreed to,” Mann says. “If there was something he felt strongly about, we’d cut him some slack and intelligently arrange some time.”

Today, Olmos says, Lt. Castillo, the man with a painful past, is going to be around for a while. No one doubts that Olmos has been good for “Miami Vice"--of the show’s 11 Emmy nominations, he was the only winner. Neither does anyone doubt that the show has been good for him, opening doors, paying him $360,000 a year and giving him the freedom to chase his dreams.

And what dreams he has. Film projects with Bob Young--"Birds of Paradise” and “The Miracle"--look promising. So does another project, a studio in Florida where alternative film makers can make humanistic films. Then there are his efforts to help rebuild Mexico City--both physically and spiritually--and his plans that the money he helped raise be channeled directly to the people of Mexico City, bypassing the political system.

There seems to be no slowing down for Olmos as the limo glides to yet another destination. He puts his feet up and relaxes. Life is good for the home boy from 1st and Indiana. He sighs and says, “Oh, what a trip I’m on.”


Advertisement