Nineteen eighty-seven has been a big year for Jimmy Smits. Nominated last week for a best supporting actor Emmy for his portrayal of "L.A. Law's" smolderingly handsome Latino attorney Victor Sifuentes, Smits received glowing notices for his performance in John Schlesinger's occult thriller "The Believers" and was recently cited by the Latino community as a leading Latino role model.
In the face of this rising tide of good fortune the 31-year-old actor seems so calm and cool you'd think he'd been prepped for success by Ollie North's lawyer.
"My life hasn't changed that much," he explains during an interview at Orion Pictures. "Sure, people recognize me and airports can get tough, but the people who stop me tend to be real nice. I'm primarily known for my work in 'L.A. Law' and because the show features an ensemble cast, none of us has had to deal with the kind of attention Don Johnson or Bruce Willis have had."
Not yet maybe. Tanned and refreshed from a recent vacation in Puerto Rico, Smits seems touchingly oblivious to the media storm that may be gathering on his horizon. When "L.A. Law" co-star Harry Hamlin was recently plastered on the cover of People magazine as "the sexiest man in America," Smits could have taken it as a cue to batten down his own hatches.
Featuring a handful of attractive men, "L.A. Law" is beginning to be handicapped like some kind of sex-appeal derby by some members of the media; this is a disturbing development, in the opinion of this earnest actor.
"I'm flattered by the sex-symbol stuff, but it upsets me when it gets turned into a contest between me and the other guys in the cast. That 'who's the sexiest' business is a crock that the media cooked up to sell magazines, so while I say thank you very much, I don't put much stock in it."
Perhaps not, but despite the fact that Smits is a classically trained actor who paid his dues performing Shakespeare on the New York stage, even he concedes that appearance is a big part of the actor's ballgame.
"My central strength as an actor is the fact that I'm 6 foot 3," he concludes. "A certain power emanates from my size, juxtaposed with the fact that I try to find an element of sensitivity in every character I play. People enjoy seeing that because it goes against what we're led to expect as far as the way men are supposed to be-- macho and all that. Which is not to say I'm not those things! But it's an added spin.
"It's difficult to talk about this stuff," he adds with an embarrassed laugh. "People become actors because they want to hide and it's not easy to talk about myself. I accept that a certain responsibility goes with being an actor in the public eye, but I haven't found a comfortable way to deal with it."
The spotlight Smits finds himself in certainly is a long way from his start. Born in New York of mixed parentage--his father is from Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America and his mother is Puerto Rican--Smits explains that "both my parents were laborers" and describes his upbringing as "lower middle class."
"I didn't read much when I was growing up and was an average student in college (Cornell University), but I could always spend hours in the library looking through books of 18th-Century costumes and so forth. I've always loved the classics--in fact, the first movie that made an impression on me was Laurence Olivier's 'Hamlet.' I think my love of the classics has something to do with my Latino background. We're passionate people and in Shakespeare the characters are quite theatrical, the situations larger-than-life and the emotions are extreme.
"No one in my family has anything to do with show business, but I had a teacher in junior high school who encouraged me to try acting," he continues. "I started performing in plays then and have been at it ever since. I left Cornell in 1982 with a degree in drama and started working a few weeks after I got to New York. There was a brief stint as a cabdriver at first, but soon after that I got work as a day player on virtually every soap opera in New York. So I was able to work on soaps to pay my bills, and do plays I believed in. Then came the pilot for 'L.A. Law' and now here I am."
The combination of roughness and refinement Smits experienced growing up in New York is, in the opinion of "L.A. Law" co-star Susan Dey, the secret of his charm.
"Jimmy's got street sense and a raw intelligence," she comments, "but at the same time he's sophisticated and cultured. You know, he always wears sneakers with those gorgeous suits he wears on the show; to me, that's Jimmy."
Though Smits thinks of himself as a working actor who happens to be of Latino origin, the Latino community thinks of him as nothing less than a major role model, and gave him this year's Imagen Award for his contribution toward improving the image of Latinos.
Presented each June by the Hispanic Media-Image Task Force, the Imagen Awards customarily pay tribute to three figures from the entertainment community. However, the only individuals cited this year were Smits and "L.A. Law's" executive producer Steve Bochco. Said committee spokesman David Picker, president of Columbia Pictures: "A lack of positive Hispanic roles convinced us to eliminate from consideration several entries that were clearly well intentioned."
"I think the stand they took was courageous," says Smits. "The image of Latinos in the media is not what it should be. There are many Latinos in America who went to college as I did, and we don't all speak with a Spanish accent. We work in the mainstream of many different professions, yet the media continue to depict Latinos in stereotypical roles, most of which involve various types of criminal activity.
"This isn't to say that the entertainment industry is permeated with racism. Latinos are simply going through a process of liberation that every ethnic group goes through and the time has come for a change in the way the media treat us. As to what I can do toward that end, I'd like to use any power I have to help young writers, specifically Latino writers, make their stories heard. At this point the doors of the industry are still closed to those stories.
"But, I must add, much as it makes me feel good, that I might be helping create a positive role model for Latinos, I don't want to be shackled to an image that I'll have to consider every time I think about taking a role. I'm an actor who happens to be Latino and I want to be free to play a variety of characters."
Though the Latino community has made much of Smits' success, producer Steve Bochco feels it's a minor element of Smits' character on "L.A. Law."
"I understand why it's important to Hispanics, but it isn't that important to us," he comments. "We don't hang a flag on his ethnicity or do a lot of storytelling about this Hispanic guy in the firm. I think the best way to combat racism is to not make an issue of the fact that he's Hispanic."
Interestingly, whereas "L.A. Law" co-star Michael Tucker agrees with Bochco that Smits' ethnicity is of minor importance, the show's two female leads, Dey and Jill Eickenberry (who appears on the show as Tucker's wife and is married to him in real life), feel that it's very significant. "There are a lot of people out there who don't know there are things like female judges and Hispanic lawyers," says Dey, "and I feel it's extremely important."
As Smits points out, though he's proud of his Latino background, he refuses to define his career in terms of it. Exercising his freedom of choice, he portrayed an icy drug czar in last year's "Running Scared," and can currently be seen in "The Believers" cast as a tormented cop who falls into the clutches of a group of evil practitioners of Santeria (a religious cult with roots in the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria). Though director John Schlesinger was unaware of Smits before working with him on "The Believers," he was immediately impressed with Smits' audition for the film.
"Jimmy did a terrific test on tape," Schlesinger recalls. "He was able to start at a high emotional pitch and sustain it without appearing actorish in any way. He has an interesting filmic face and personality, he plays very strong and there's something quite sexy about him; the fact that he's an unusual mixture of nationalities has a lot to do with that."
Smits has received good notices for his performance in "The Believers," but he's making more of a mark with his work on "L.A. Law." Though he's justifiably proud of Victor Sifuentes, he gives the lion's share of the credit for the show's success to Bochco.
"The quality level of 'L.A. Law' starts at the top with Steven and trickles down through the entire production. He's committed to maintaining a level of integrity in his work and he surrounds himself with people who share his standards."
"It's sweet of Jimmy to say that, but you gotta spread the credit around," counters Bochco. "Jimmy brought a humor to the part that surprised me. Not that I thought Jimmy was humorless, but he gave Victor a whimsical quality that was surprising and delightful--and we really began to write to it."
"And he has a beautiful way of working," adds Dey. "He starts by circling around a scene and moving toward its center, then all of a sudden, like light passing through, he just hits it. He brings something very fresh to the show; there's almost a virginity about him."
"I feel incredibly lucky to be involved with the show and plan to stay around for a while," Smits concludes. "But I'm well aware of the fact that when working in television it's easy to fall into just playing yourself because it's such an endless daily grind. So far I've managed to keep Victor very different from who I am in real life--and I hope I can maintain that because I want to continue to have a career after the series ends."
"Jimmy and Victor are very different," confirms Tucker. "Victor's very aggressive, but Jimmy's actually a pussycat. And Jimmy's entirely too tall to be a sex symbol," adds the less-than-tall Tucker with a laugh. "But he seems to be overcoming that handicap."