COVER STORY : Breaking the Chains : Edward James Olmos’ anger over ‘cancer’ of the gang subculture fuels his film ‘American Me,’ about life in the barrio--and prison
It’s always the job of the actor to convince. Even so, there’s no mistaking the anguish of Edward James Olmos’ tone as he describes the making of “American Me,” Universal’s $16-million story about the implosive pressures of Latino gang life in East Los Angeles and the California prison system.
“It makes me cry and overwhelms and humbles me, what people have given at this point in my life,” said Olmos. “This is my life, my barrio. I’ve given my life and soul to it.”
Not only does Olmos star in “American Me,” he has written the script (from earlier versions by Floyd Mutrux and Desmond Nakano), he’s producing, and he’s making his directorial debut. So in one respect, Olmos could be describing what it feels like to have positioned himself over decades for this movie equivalent of a heavyweight championship shot.
But in another, he’s carrying the weight of Latino community expectation, which has been building on his back ever since he first talked to a group of students at Roosevelt High 20 years ago. “American Me” is necessarily made up of a largely Latino cast, to which Olmos has added a veteran behind-the-scenes Latino backup crew. Reynaldo Villalobos is director of photography, Joe Aubel is production designer, Silvia Vega Vasquez is costume designer, and Ken Diaz is makeup artist.
Beyond this, Olmos is angrily taking a message back to the barrio that he claims it will not want to hear. The 1978 poster picture of Olmos as “Zoot Suit’s” El Pachuco showed him bestriding the Los Angeles skyline as an ultra-cool Latino colossus, in whom anger and pride were fused in the defiant thrust of his hips and the stylish tilt of his broad-brimmed hat. In 1991, Olmos is back with a different, tragic view of machismo as an endless re-enactment of a system that gorges on its young.
“I want to show that there’s a cancer in this subculture of the gangs,” says Olmos. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve taken away our manhood with this movie.’ I say to them, ‘Either you treat the cancer or it’ll eat you alive.’ ”
The power to bring that message has been a long time coming. Universal President Tom Pollock says of “American Me,” which was first written in the early ‘70s: “For years it was the most interesting script in town that never got made.”
In a different sense, Olmos is one of the most interesting actors in Hollywood who has never reached the top echelons of stardom, or more precisely, the level of power at which a project gets made on the strength of a name.
Of course, he was an Oscar nominee for his 1988 portrayal of math teacher Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver,” and he won Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his role as Lt. Martin Castillo on TV’s “Miami Vice.” And he was the subject of a Time magazine cover story in 1988.
But those triumphs have also been his trap; Olmos has been restricted to “ethnic” types (in “Triumph of the Spirit” he played a Greek Gypsy), and the long-expected breakout of Latino culture into the American mainstream has yet to fully materialize. Partly through circumstance and partly through his own notorious stubbornness, Olmos’ career has been curfewed in the barrio.
“American Me” could change that. The movie, which deals with the formation of the Mexican Mafia behind California prison walls by two characters named Santana (played by Olmos) and J. D. (William Forsythe), begins with the Pachuco riots in Los Angeles in 1943 and ends in the mid-'70s, and has been shot in East L.A., Folsom and Chino prisons, and Universal’s back lot. It is scheduled for a January release.
“I think after this he’ll be a major American filmmaker,” says Robert M. Young, his friend, co-producer and director of several of his movies (PBS’ “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and “Alambrista,” “Triumph of the Spirit” and “Talent for the Game”). Young is working as cameraman for Olmos, an almost unheard-of gesture for a feature filmmaker (“Alambrista” won the Camera d’Or in Cannes).
Says writer-director Floyd Mutrux, who wrote the original screenplay and will be credited as executive producer: “This is Eddie’s ‘Dances With Wolves.’ ”
The filmmakers are pressing for a realism so close to truth that the mirror worlds of reality and movie fiction have sometimes switched. The grimmest of settings have yielded improbably Capra-esque displays of good will and common cause. The make-believe world of movie-making has been chilled by actual event; for example, Arturo Jimenez, the 19-year-old who was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy Aug. 3 in Ramona Gardens, had a small role early in the film. And in order to shoot scenes in sections of East L.A., the company had to get clearance from local gangs to use their turf, and to use gang members as extras.
Olmos is at “American Me’s” nerve center, bringing to it the zealousness that at times has nearly sabotaged his career. “I think this film will allow people to take a journey into a world they never knew existed. It’s the thing that’s led my life,” he says. “I’ve never been in jail, but I’ve done extensive research on the subject for 18 years. There’s a desperate need to understand why there are so many minorities in that system. All I can hope to do is get people inside that understanding.”
To that end, he refashioned Mutrux’s script (the breakdown of final credits may be arbitrated by the Writers’ Guild). Mutrux describes his idea:
“ ‘American Me’ is about friendship and betrayal. Two guys start out with a dream out of a need for respect. They form a gang, the EME, and through their courage and dignity they take control of the California Penal Institution. The story I wrote is where fact meets myth meets legend. People need heroes. I need heroes.”
In his own treatment of “American Me,” Olmos has taken a darker view than Mutrux. Santana is not an Emiliano Zapata-like romantic hero, as Mutrux conceived him, but a brutal anti-hero, a sociopath who, for all his formidable intelligence and courage, is a criminally stunted human being. In a brief episode of freedom, for example, he can’t have sex with the woman he loves without plundering her, prison-style.
Whatever merits the film may have, Olmos will be relying heavily on his reputation among Latinos to bring it home. Like “Stand and Deliver,” “American Me” is a fusion of his two lives, one as an actor and the other as a spokesman for the Latino community, where he enjoys a genuine hero’s status. He speaks on average 150 times a year in schools, detention homes, juvenile halls, migrant worker camps, prisons and American Indian reservations, a practice begun early in his acting career. He was one of the first to organize a relief fund for the victims of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. After “Stand and Deliver” was made, he worked with corporations such as Pepsico, Arco, IBM and General Motors to have the movie distributed to every high school in the country. In fact, many of the nation’s leaders are probably more familiar with Olmos through his humanitarian efforts than his movies.
Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services in L.A., recalls the December Season of Peace meeting in 1986, in which 125 members of 52 street gangs, most of them Latino, edged nervously into a room in Our Lady Queen of Angels (La Placita) to forge a truce for the holidays. There had been 178 gang-related slayings that year. Says Valdivia:
“We asked a number of the gangs, mostly Latino, not to kill each other from Thanksgiving to Jan 1.
“Eddie Olmos was just someone we knew from ‘Miami Vice.’ But the grief, introspection and seriousness of his character was something we looked up to. He had a presence.
“A few days before the dinner, I got a crazy idea. I called the studio. They said he was in Miami. Five people later, I got Olmos. He said, ‘What is this?’ ‘It’s big,’ I said. In 48 hours, he was on a plane. When he came into the dinner, there was a deadly silence. He hit ‘em between the eyes. He gave himself as an example of how you can make it. We were all crying. At the end, the kids all sang ‘Silent Night.’
“Olmos has a mission. It goes back to before he was born. The thing is, he does it from the heart. The heart does not lie.”
The speech Olmos gave that night, the one he gives whenever he’s called, has over the years become The Speech. But he’s no less intense wherever he gives it, whether it’s in a juvenile hall or his trailer during a lunch break at Chino State Prison.
“I tell the kids, ‘I’m your worst nightmare, because I know all the excuses,’ ” Olmos said. “I’ve had to learn the first rule: forgive yourself. It’s a nightmare to think of all the things you do to hurt yourself. But you can’t make excuses. You can’t say, ‘If only things had been different.’ Not everyone can do it. But you must try not to use the excuse.
“We all start out with no discipline, no patience, no perseverance, no determination. We all start out at zero. People say, ‘You have talent.’ No, the gift is to realize that we all start out even. Whether we messed up or put our best foot forward, with these four qualities, we take care of our mental, physical and spiritual health each day. Am I the best in the world? No. The question is: Am I the best I can be? People say, ‘That’s Zen or self-realization.’ No man, I’m a kid from East L.A. who found himself inside of his life.”
On his mother’s side, Olmos’ family goes back three generations in L.A., to people who fled the tyrannical regime of Porfirio Diaz after taking part in the Mexican Revolution (his maternal great-grandparents published a radical newspaper).
During World War II, Olmos’ mother, Eleanor Romo, was visiting Mexico City when she met Pedro Olmos, who was running a pharmaceutical distribution business he’d started at 14. Soon after, he turned the business over to his brothers (he was one of 13 children) and came across the border in 1945 to marry her. He worked in a slaughterhouse, then became a welder. They moved to a house on Cheesebrough’s Lane, between First and Indiana streets in Boyle Heights, where Olmos was born Feb. 24, 1947, the middle child between a brother, Peter, and sister, Eleanor.
“My brother and sister were so proud when they saw me on film,” says Olmos. “They didn’t know I had the capacity to change. I said, ‘Don’t get too excited. I’m still Eddie. Don’t put me someplace I can fall from. Keep me at your side.’ ”
The family moved to Montebello in the mid-'5Os, where his parents split up. It was the first of two of the most critical events of his life (the other was his 1978 portrayal of El Pachuco in Luis Valdez’s play and movie, “Zoot Suit”) and to shore up his unhappiness he played baseball. It was, as he told New York magazine, “a self-defense mechanism; the separation of my parents drove me into self-preservation--preserving my own sanity--by making me do the one thing that I enjoyed doing, that would make me stop thinking about my own problems.”
“I attribute everything I’ve learned to baseball,” he said on a lunch break at Chino Prison, “because it taught me discipline. It taught me that I would learn more by playing on days when I didn’t feel like playing than on days when I did. By the age of 14 I was in the California Sun League, the Dodgers’ off-season team--I played catcher. I was being groomed for the majors. I caught for Eddie Roebuck.
“But I stopped cold one day. I decided I wanted to go into music. I wanted to sing. I couldn’t sing a stitch, but I had a sense of commitment. It’s a difficult thing to do--sing. I still sing. In the ‘70s I wrote music for plays. I wrote the score for “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.’ I went from album producing (for Kris Kristofferson and B. B. King) to engineering to songwriting to performing seven nights a week for four years at Gazzarri’s and two years at The Factory.”
This was in the heyday of the local club scene in the ‘60s, when he formed a group called the Pacific Ocean, and played the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bobby Blue Bland and Howlin’ Wolf. He played five half-hour sets a night while going to East L.A. College (1964-66) and Cal State L.A. (1966-68) to study psychology and criminology, as well as theater and dance.
In 1967, he married Kaija Keel, daughter of MGM film star Howard Keel, who overcame his skepticism over the staying power of this roguish-looking youth (Olmos wore buckskin at the time and had let his hair grow waist-length) and gave him one piece of advice: “Don’t let your overhead own you.” (The couple divorced earlier this year.)
It was a motto that suited his temperament. Olmos is an exceptionally headstrong man. Telly Savalas called him a prima donna when, as a bit player on “Kojak,” Olmos refused to utter a line, saying, “A Puerto Rican bartender wouldn’t speak to a cop.” His longtime friend, veteran actor Pepe Serna (who has a major role in “American Me”) recalls the first time they met:
“We worked in an episode of ‘Medical Center.’ He played the part of a character who was supposed to take a hit. He asked for some cardboard boxes to be set up so that he could fall into them, like he was telling the director and everybody else. We called him ‘Olmos an actor.’
“He had no qualms about expressing himself even then. Something was driving him. He wasn’t a Mexican or a guy from East L.A. or a stereotype. He was already Edward James Olmos. In ’69 they said we were coming up to the Decade of the Hispanic. Eddie said, ‘Wait till we’re in our 40s; then we’ll be ready.’
“Nobody but Eddie could’ve got into Folsom,” Serna says. “He’s got a priest-evangelist streak in him. He’s maniacal about going into the schools and juvenile halls. People look for ulterior motives in him. He does definitely think he can change the world.”
Lt. Castillo played a priestly function in “Miami Vice.” In real life, Olmos has practiced a good deal of renunciation as well. After he made “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” for PBS in 1982, he nearly bankrupted himself by turning down five straight movie roles and traveling through the Southwest with the can of film under his arm, renting theaters at his own expense to bring audiences to the movie.
The year before he had made “Wolfen,” but only after insisting that the producers interview every American Indian actor they could find before casting him as a bridge worker with mystical ties to the natural world. He was working as a furniture mover to make ends meet when Michael Mann called one night in 1984 to offer him “Miami Vice.” Olmos turned him down through four increasingly frantic phone calls and salary inducements.
“He offered me more for eight weeks’ work than my father made in a year,” Olmos remembers. But he held out until he got what he wanted--a non-exclusive contract that eventually freed him to make “Stand and Deliver” and “Triumph of the Spirit.”
Olmos’ tenacity and single-mindedness are probably as responsible for the making of “American Me” as his talent and promise. “If we didn’t have Eddie Olmos,” says Universal’s Pollock, “we wouldn’t have made the movie.
“I first read the script for ‘American Me’ when I was a lawyer and I represented Floyd Mutrux,” he said. “We sold it to Paramount, where Al Pacino was doing ‘The Godfather’ and wanted to play a Hispanic. Lou Adler was going to produce. It went into turnaround, then came back to Universal. Sean Daniel wanted to do it as production executive in ’77. But it didn’t go. It went back to Paramount. In time, whenever mention of it came up, I thought no one should play it but Eddie Olmos. After I saw ‘Stand and Deliver,’ and how he transformed himself from being a hard-assed cop to this stooped, balding calculus teacher, I thought he was the actor for the role.
“I asked Floyd what had happened with the script. It was still at Paramount. There were a lot of legal encumbrances getting it back, but we did. We had a production meeting with Eddie. I saw how passionate he was, and how much legitimacy he’d give to the project. Eddie convinced us it was about his people, and where he grew up. He has a lot of emotional commitment to this, and you’re always looking for a director who’s impassioned about the job.”
“I had worked a bit part in Floyd Mutrux’s ‘aloha, bobby and rose’ in 1973,” Olmos recalls. “Floyd and I discussed the inception for ‘American Me.’ A man named Tony Cassas, a former deputy warden at San Quentin, ran a task force out of a mobile home in Monterey Park. The unit under his command was to investigate and stop the prison gangs. At that time there was a strong recognition of gangs and what they were doing in extortion, prostitution, drugs and gambling.
“The unit was a kind of ‘Scared Straight’ project that had hard-core prisoners come to juvenile halls and talk to young offenders about the road to the big time. The only problem was that the Mexican Mafia became involved and got inside the program, so that it had to be shut down. The first draft of ‘American Me’ was written in ’74. In ’77, Pacino did ‘Bobby Deerfield’ and let the project go. In ’78, I did El Pachuco and my career started to move. In ’81, Floyd gave me the rights to the project.”
(“Did I give him the rights?” says Mutrux, skeptically. “If he says I gave them to him, I gave them to him. But do you think I’d give anything away? Eddie is Eddie. We’re friends. Good friends. But he gets these ideas, like, ‘I could be governor of California, man. I’m the most visible Hispanic in America.’ That’s why he didn’t like getting divorced. It put a kink in those plans. I tell him, ‘Eddie, your picture is on the cover of Time magazine. But you know what? A week after it’s out, the magazine is on the bottom of a bird cage.’ Then we laugh. Hollywood’s a bubble. The laughter is what brings us back to reality.”)
Ironies abound here. Mutrux has written another script called “Blood In . . . Blood Out,” which deals with similar themes and in fact makes use of “American Me’s” two protagonists. The film, which is still shooting, has been rewritten by Jimmy Santiago Baca and Jeremy Iacone and is being directed for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures by Taylor Hackford. At one time, Olmos was going to star and direct, just as he has with “American Me,” but he parted company with Hackford because, according to Olmos, "(Taylor) wouldn’t give me creative control.”
Rumors of bad feeling between the companies have cropped up. Olmos denies harboring any enmity toward the “Blood In . . . Blood Out” company. Hackford isn’t speaking in public on the subject.
Olmos’ powers of persuasion were sorely tested during the filming of “American Me” when prison officials at Folsom decided not to let him shoot key scenes inside.
“We met the warden of Folsom, the deputy warden, two associate wardens and the captain of the entire installation, the head of all aspects of the prison system, a representative from the Sacramento Fire Department and the head of correctional facilities for the State of California,” Olmos said during an outdoor dinner break at East L.A.'s 1st Street Elementary School, where the production company had made its base camp.
“We were asking them to let us stage three deaths, a major riot, and use the entire penal institution, including the main yard and all of its inmates. I was told by the warden that after intense study of our requests, some of them could not be done and many others would have to be limited.
“I know we’d presented them with a logistical nightmare, breaking all the prison taboos, but I felt I’d traveled 18 years only to be stopped at the 11th hour by fear. I stood up. I’ve never spoken with more passion in my life. I talked for about 40 minutes nonstop. I talked about what this movie was intended to be about, the awareness of a subculture, the politics of a behavioral tradition passed down from father to son. The outside world didn’t know how a penal institution worked from inside. At the rate we’re going, they wouldn’t be able to hold all the people who were coming in, due to the rise in the crime rate. We really had to stop and find a way to educate the youth.”
Olmos clenched his fists around his fork and knife. His eyes became intensely focused and the veins began swelling in his neck as he angrily recalled the scene.
“I told them it was a sin that when I went into Central Juvenile Hall I saw that 85% were Latino, and it was a sin not to be able to stop them from going further by using the strongest medium in the world. (Movies) attack the subconscious mind in so many ways. I’d worked for so many years. I’d proven myself over and over, with ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’ and ‘Triumph of the Spirit.’ We are paying millions to make this understood. I was crying, passionate. I wanted them to know that if this slipped through my hands, it would slip through theirs. I looked them in the eye and told them they were taking responsibility for not letting millions and millions of kids see this.
“I knew that in their hearts they agreed with me. They told me if we staged a riot, it’d set off the whole prison. I said, ‘OK, we’ll do it in pantomime. Only, (we’ll) destroy the place and be allowed one gunshot.’ The captain said, ‘OK, I think we can do that.’ From then on, they couldn’t do enough.”
“When I heard him say he wanted to use the prison for three weeks, I said, ‘Dream on.’ ” said Anna Olivarez, Folsom’s deputy warden. “ Two days is an intrusion. We rarely let film crews inside the prison. We never let them disrupt the routine. He wanted to age the prison, dirty it up, peel the paint. I said, ‘Not on your life.’ But he wore us out. The message of the movie was one we support: Say ‘No’ to gangs.
“The custody folks were especially concerned with the riot segment. In a prison environment, riots are contagious. There are 3,400 inmates here. When you hear a disturbance, it spreads quickly. The captain, Jim Butler, was dead set against doing it. He’s an ex-Marine, a man of few words who does not show emotion. But while Eddie was speaking, I saw something come into his eyes. Eddie had convinced him. Once he made up his mind to go along, we knew that, dammit, we’d make it happen.
“We were still concerned about the reaction of the inmates, particularly with the Hispanics getting all the attention, but Eddie went on closed-circuit TV to talk to the prisoners and tell them what he was doing. He made himself accessible to everyone: black, white, Hispanic. He shook everyone’s hand. He didn’t act the big star. My concern went away.”
Everyone connected with “American Me” has spoken of the emotion generated by the conditions the movie explores. Robert Young’s words are characteristic: “I see an image of Uncle Sam eating his own, with black heads and brown legs sticking out of his mouth. This society has failed in a terrible way towards its children. How can we rescue them? We can bail out the S&Ls;, but we fire 2,000 teachers in L.A. It’s obscene. I’m old enough to know that the world goes on its own way. But I also know you take the path your heart chooses and that it’s all a cosmic joke. I hope the film opens debate about what’s going on. Forty percent of the kids in juvenile hall are there for murder. What kind of society are we making where kids get to kill? It represents our collective failure.”
But does heartfelt sentiment mean that Olmos will deliver a good movie?
“Remember that Eddie’s not alone in this,” cautions Mutrux. “He has a lot of experienced people around him.”
(The film makes use of advanced technology with the 13-pound Aaton, a supersensitive, hand-held camera developed in France for Jean-Luc Godard and first used by an American when Young filmed “Triumph of the Spirit”). Says Serna: “The unique part of this movie is that every performance is as close to reality as you can possibly get without going into somebody’s home. We’ve had to play these stereotypes before. But with Eddie we’ve brought it back to the Spencer Tracy school where you know what you’re gonna say, you look ‘em in the eye and you tell the truth.”
“It’s the most truthful, non-performance film about acting, about trying to be in the moment, I’ve ever seen,” Serna added. “Do you know how hard it is to show how terrible we are and have Americans say, ‘They’re all like this’? It’s so hard when you’re trying to show kids the ugly underbelly of this life.”
Adds producer Sean Daniel, who was on the set virtually every day of the shoot: “A lot of people will recognize their experience in this film. All the cliches are true. Just as there’s violence all around us, there’s survival all around us. You end up knowing much more than reading the Metro section. None of us who’s seen this will ever feel the same. I think that’ll be true for people who leave the theater.”
People who leave the theater will at some point go home to evening news reports showing yet another teen’s gunned-down body wrapped in a coroner’s shroud. Or weeping parents pointing to the spot where their toddler took a drive-by bullet. Movies like “Boulevard Nights,” “Colors, “The Warriors” and the recent much discussed “Boyz N the Hood” dramatize an urban condition that’s no less horrific for being commonplace: There are an estimated 90,000 gang members in the County of Los Angeles, and the problem is spreading nationwide.
Will “American Me,” like “Boyz,” run the risk of being misinterpreted?
“I don’t mean to sound disingenuous,” Pollock said, “but I don’t believe movies cause violence, unless they advocate violence. I think this movie will work positively if it’s good. Sensationalism can only hurt, not help.”
Whether “American Me” succeeds or fails, Olmos the artist will probably move, at least temporarily, beyond his self-consciousness as a purely Latino spokesman. He may portray rocker Jim Croce in his next film, or he may play a New Guinea crocodile hunter in Young’s “Bird of Paradise.” In the meantime, he occupies the luxuriantly rare, perhaps one-time-only position of blending his artistic and political life by reaching to his roots to fulfill the Brechtian credo: Change the world. It needs it.