Dying His Hero's Death : He's played a lover on 'Santa Barbara' and a lawyer on 'L.A. Law.' But all his life, A Martinez has wanted to play the legendary California bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. : In Luis Valdez's new play with music 'Bandido!' he gets his big chance

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

A Martinez vividly remembers childhood trips north from Los Angeles. In the car, the future actor's grandmother would tell tales of Tiburcio Vasquez, the notorious bandido who frequented those parts back in the 1850s.

Sometimes Martinez's father would stop the car at Vasquez Rocks near Agua Dulce, then pull out his 8-millimeter movie camera. When he and his brothers saw the camera pointing at them, Martinez recalls, "we would shoot each other immediately, then spend the next three minutes dying."

Beginning Thursday, Martinez will re-create Vasquez's demise eight times a week on the Mark Taper Forum stage. In "Bandido!," Luis Valdez's new play with music, the television and movie heartthrob stars as the fabled Vasquez.

Characterized as a villain, hero, revolutionary or avenger--or, sometimes, all of those--Vasquez was reportedly the last man to be publicly hanged in California. Said to have been on the run for 20 of his 39 years, he was among the first people sent to San Quentin and one of the first to break out. He was finally captured in the area now known as Hollywood.

Playing Vasquez offers 45-year-old Martinez another chance to take on a romantic Latino role. It was, after all, his years as sexy-but-sensitive police detective Cruz Castillo on NBC's long-running soap opera "Santa Barbara" that sent him careening off to TV stardom.

" 'Bandido!' sounds like it was pristinely made for A," says actress Sheila Kelley, who played Martinez's love interest on "L.A. Law" and is paired with him again in USA Network's film "Deconstructing Sarah" later this month. "He's completely charming and dangerous and gentle, all at once."

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Martinez was also raised in an environment where Vasquez was legendary. "Tiburcio continues to be a heroic figure in the Mexican community," Martinez says. "When I was younger, I thought that he was like Robin Hood; he was a robber at a time when his culture was being trashed, and you could sort of understand it. And having studied it now, it becomes apparent to me that he was caught in a situation from which there was no graceful escape."

Vasquez was descended from the founders of San Francisco, and both his parents came from landed families. "He was charismatic and smart," Martinez explains, "and he had a reasonable expectation as a boy that he would have a wonderful life.

"Then all of a sudden, boom, gold is discovered and in one year, the population swells by 1,000%, and it's all people from an alien culture who quickly overwhelm everything. There is no more community, everything starts coming apart, and there was a great deal of racial hatred and mistrust."

Martinez says that he's seen aspects of that historic racism in ways that hit home. For example, when the actor reviewed title papers for the Malibu land on which he and his wife, Leslie, built their house, he found a deed "from maybe 80 years ago when a condition for owning that piece of land was that you agreed you would not sell it to a Mexican or a 'Negro.' I forget the exact words, but they specified you could only sell it to white people.

"Human beings are always trying to carve out their own turf, and we see the depth of ethnic hatred played out all over the globe right now. Look at Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa--displacement has effects that don't go away. And I don't think it's gone away here. When Gov. Wilson cites Mexican immigration as a key problem afflicting California, I wonder if he remembers that the Mexicans were here first."

That's how playwright Valdez sees it as well. Vasquez's family history parallels the development of this country, the playwright told reporters at a recent press conference for "Bandido!": "His evolution as a bandido is the Chicano evolution. We didn't just get here yesterday. We founded the state."

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Valdez first sketched his scenario for "Bandido!" on a paper napkin for Taper Artistic Director Gordon Davidson nearly two decades ago. He did it while here working with the Taper on the world premiere of "Zoot Suit," his groundbreaking 1978 play with music about Chicanos and racism in '40s Los Angeles.

In "Bandido!" Valdez has dramatized a historical figure who was already pretty dramatic himself. As Valdez explains, bandit Vasquez even sold photographs of himself printed up like baseball cards, with a flip side listing the high points of his career.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Martinez is also handsome. Valdez explains that Vasquez was famous not just for his professional exploits but for his womanizing. His weakness for women, says the playwright, was Vasquez's tragic flaw; he was captured after he was turned in by a fellow gang member whose wife had become Vasquez's lover.

Vasquez did not die quickly on the gallows. It took him 14 minutes after his neck broke, and Valdez built "Bandido!" around what might have transpired in Vasquez's mind during that time.

Characters spring from Vasquez's flashbacks and nightmares, even emerging from coffins to talk, sing or dance. Martinez, who has grown a beard and mustache to play Vasquez, is rarely offstage for long.

The actor also sings all or part of four songs.

"It's a big challenge," Valdez says. "He has to handle tons of words, and the play is written in a style that requires command of not just English but Spanish."

The playwright says he put Martinez's name "on a short list of actors who could deliver Vasquez. I was very happy he accepted the role and equally happy to see he was as good an actor onstage as in film and TV, which isn't always the case. Some actors can't make the leap. But he trained in theater. It is a natural return for him."

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Martinez made his professional singing debut at 12 in a talent contest at Hollywood Bowl. Wearing a burgundy satin Harry Belafonte-style shirt and black pants, he sang "Kingston Market" well enough to win a local TV appearance (where he played the piano and sang) and a Polaroid camera.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, the oldest of six children, A was the third Adolpho Martinez. From assorted nicknames--among them, "little a, "A-frame" and "model A"--came A, no period. He went to Verdugo Hills High in Tujunga (where, he notes, two scenes in "Bandido!" occur), then studied theater at UCLA. He worked in Equity Waiver theater and played in rock 'n' roll bands.

He played rhythm guitar and sang in his high school surf band, the Makahas (named for a beach in Hawaii), which he says profited from "the novelty (that) I was a Mexican fronting a surf band." While at UCLA and after, he played piano for a band called Tujunga.

But by the time Martinez dropped out of UCLA in 1970, he'd already started working in movies. He calls the 1972 film "The Cowboys," directed by Mark Rydell and starring John Wayne, "the linchpin for my career as an actor. . . . All of a sudden, I had a profile and I started to get offers for work. It really gave me momentum for the first time."

He played a slew of bad guys--pimps, dope dealers and assassins--and occasionally a victim. He also played young Chicano radicals, which was what first brought him to Valdez's attention.

"I was the young Chicano street guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I seemed to be guilty of a crime," Martinez summarizes, wryly tossing off a typical story line from that period. "But somehow the hero of the show could sense that I had a good heart, then prove that it was circumstantial evidence and I was innocent. Occasionally I played the friend of the important guy."

In 1980, he played Juan Seguin, the first Latino mayor of San Antonio, for PBS' "American Playhouse," and, he says, "it was a watershed event for me. I got to actually demonstrate my heart for the first time. And it also was a chance to come together with the community of Chicano actors who normally don't get to work together."

Martinez seems keenly aware that being Latino both held him back and propelled him forward:

"I could not complain in those days, because I was working, and I felt that my ethnicity was a benefit to me. I came on the scene with some training at the right time."

Then, in 1984, came "Santa Barbara." He almost didn't take the job, he recalls. There he was, hoping to do more film than TV, when his agent was pushing him to audition for not just television, but daytime television. Three times he said no. But on the fourth call, he says, he went.

"I was pretty deep into my career by then," the actor recalls. "You start thinking, 'Maybe I'm about to run out of gas here.' You start getting tired of playing these creeps, and you start doing it less well as you get tired of it."

It was a smart decision. Cruz Castillo became key to "Santa Barbara's" story line, and Martinez emerged as a daytime-TV star. He and Marcy Walker, who played his girlfriend and, eventually, wife Eden Capwell, were among soapdom's best-known and most popular couples.

At New World Entertainment, which produced and still distributes the show, a spokesman says hundreds of requests come in each week from all over the world asking for autographed photos of Martinez and Walker. The show went off the air in the United States last year after eight seasons, but it is still seen in more than 40 countries.

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Martinez, who was recently voted Germany's most popular daytime-TV actor, has a theory about that popularity: "I think Cruz translates all over the world, because he's the ethnic guy from the poor side of the tracks who won the heart of the American princess."

"Santa Barbara" received an IMAGEN award in 1989 for Castillo, heralded as "the only major Hispanic character in daytime TV." Martinez was reportedly also the first Latino to be nominated for an Emmy as lead actor in daytime drama, and he won the Emmy in 1990 after several nominations.

He left "Santa Barbara" in 1992 to become a regular for two seasons on "L.A. Law." He had done a guest appearance on the show previously, playing a doomed Death Row inmate for the show's 1990 season finale. As Daniel Morales, he played a litigator who brings his 7-month-old daughter to work and later romances legal secretary Gwen Taylor (Sheila Kelley).

Martinez teams again with Kelley as lover-cum-blackmailer Kenny in USA Network's "Deconstructing Sarah," a world premiere movie set for June 16. And expect ed sometime in early fall is New World's psychological thriller "One Night Stand," in which he co-stars with Ally Sheedy.

In "One Night Stand," which marks the directorial debut of actress Talia Shire, Martinez plays a stranger whom Sheedy meets in a club, and who may or may not have killed his wife. Shire says she and Sheedy "thought A would be perfect in this role, because (his character) is an unknown. His identify is up for grabs. You have to have an artful actor who can be sexual and menacing and mysterious."

A leading man now, Martinez acknowledges that opportunities "for people like me, of this particular ethnic persuasion, to play leading roles have been slowly improving. Eddie Olmos obviously pushed things forward and really opened up a huge door. Before him, Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban--all the way back to Gilbert Roland--there have been people carrying that line.

"The degree to which Andy Garcia has broken through is pretty much unprecedented. It's really important to the Latino community, acting and otherwise, that the development of stars occurs. Then it's viable from a business point of view for our stories to be told. That's the way this game works."

He seems surprised by a question about whether he'd go on with "Bandido!" should it wind up on Broadway as "Zoot Suit" did. He doesn't know, he says; it never even came up. Nor does he have a contract, he says, should "Bandido!" also follow "Zoot Suit" to become a film. "It's kind of a be-here-now situation," he says of the role, "(as in) Baba Ram Dass'advice all those years ago to us '60s types."

* "Bandido!," Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Thursday through July 24. $28-$35. Preview performances today, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m.; $22. Tickets available through the Taper and James A. Doolittle Theatre box offices and Ticketmaster. Charge by phone: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000.

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