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Hector Elizondo: Getting to the Heart of Matters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a certain irony, even a double irony, to the occasion.

Here was actor Hector Elizondo, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Imagen Foundation in Beverly Hills on April 16, touting the virtue of substance over any sort of image. In Spanish, imagen means image.

Delivering a poignant tribute to his parents--"now long since deceased, to whom I owe so much"--Elizondo summed up: “So if there’s anything I took from my father that has helped me in my life and my work, it is that the most important thing is not the image you present to the world, but the substance that bleeds through.”

Then, too, there was the body of work for which he was being honored. At 60, Elizondo has a career spanning nearly four decades, from New York theater to television and more than 30 movies, and most of it, quite deliberately and painstakingly, has been as a mainstream, rather than Latino, actor.

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The lean, nearly bald, gap-toothed actor is best known as the suave European hotelier with a heart who befriended Julia Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman” and, for the last three seasons, as Dr. Phillip Watters, the worldly, overburdened chief of staff on CBS’ “Chicago Hope.”

Introducing Elizondo was director Garry Marshall--who has cast him in nine movies, including “Pretty Woman"--who told Imagen, whose mission is to build a bridge between Hollywood and the Latino community: “My whole contribution with Hector is, I never cast him as a Latino. I had him at an advertising agency [‘Nothing in Common’], as a gangster in a dress [‘Young Doctors in Love’]. . . .”

Still, it was Bruce Jay Friedman’s off-Broadway comedy “Steambath” in 1970, with Elizondo in the role of God in the guise of a Puerto Rican steam bath attendant, that brought him an Obie and marked his breakthrough as an actor.

To talk further of work, heritage and fathers and sons, Elizondo sat in his Sherman Oaks living room on a recent morning, taking time out to pick fresh mint for the ice water and to play a piece from a CD of Mexican baroque music, showing the intermix of multiple cultural influences.

So how does Elizondo view not being cast as Latino? And is mainstreaming such a good thing?

“It depends,’ he replies evenly. “I didn’t become an actor to be pigeon-holed. Fortunately for me, I have a neutral-looking puss, and I can play any nationality. And I’m blessed with a good ear for dialects. It’s not genetic. I just came from a [New York] neighborhood where you heard every dialect you can imagine.

“I never thought of myself as a Latin actor,” he adds. “It was only when I started to be asked to work in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s that I heard ‘Latin actor.’ I looked around and saw [Latino] actors who were starving for tidbits and it was awful, awful. All that was left for them was stereotypes. It eats you up. One of the reasons I ducked the stereotypical bullet was the New York theater. I came with a certain pedigree.”

After moving to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s--though keeping his New York apartment--"I did a few things that I had to do in order to pay the rent.”

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Such as? “The bad drug dealer.”

In what? “I forget.”

Now Elizondo has come full circle. “I’d love to be able to portray someone who happens to be Latin or Latin/Hispanic.” His tableau is “Chicago Hope’s” Dr. Watters.

“I’ve been fighting like hell to bring the Latin/Hispanic element into Watters’ character. And they’ve just been a little slow in realizing that that’s a very valuable thing. . . . From the beginning, I said, ‘Why don’t we take advantage of the fact that I am bilingual? And why don’t we make my mother Latin?’ That [appeared] in the first year but [the producers] dropped the ball. . . . But I think they’re getting the idea that there’s a big market out there that’s dying to see that.”

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In recent weeks, “Chicago Hope” has introduced Watters’ son Michael, a paramedic, portrayed by Jesse Borrego. And Dr. Watters has a girlfriend, Emma, played by Maria Conchita Alonso.

Elizondo’s father, Martin Echeverria Elizondo, was “born on a cargo ship sailing from Spain to Puerto Rico,” and it was in Puerto Rico that he met and married Carmen Medina Reyes. They moved to New York before Hector and his younger sister, Emma, were born.

“Elizondo is a Basque name,” the actor says. “Mom’s people were from Spain. One thing [his parents’ families] had in common was the Spanish name. Not everyone from Puerto Rico has that. [Puerto Rican] is a nationality, not a race. That’s why when [people] ask me my nationality, I say, ‘New Yorker.’ That’s where I was born and raised. And my parents were from Puerto Rico, which makes them automatic naturalized citizens. So they were Americans.”

Don Martine, as his father was known in their West Side neighborhood near Harlem, had been a foreman in a defense plant during World War II, an accountant, a neighborhood moving man. “A working-class background,” the son proudly notes, “purely working-class.”

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His father, he told Imagen, “loved being American. He loved being Puerto Rican. He was convinced that most people that excelled were, if not Puerto Rican, then Latin surely. . . . He told me, ‘Never celebrate your victories and never mourn your defeats. Stay sereno [serene].’ ”

Elizondo was a father at 19. “It happened.” He dropped out of New York’s City College. “I had to get married. I had to take care of my boy. I had to go to work.”

When the marriage to his year-old son’s mother broke up, he, his parents and his sister raised the child. A second marriage--an attempt to give his young son a more immediate family--also quickly ended in divorce.

He pauses. “I was a very responsible dad. That changed my life. From there on in, every move I made, I had to consider my son first. . . . That’s why I’m not intimidated by anything.”

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Today Rodd Elizondo is a preschool teacher in San Francisco and the father of Juliet, age 8, whose photo her grandfather rushes to show his guest.

Since 1969, Elizondo has been married to Carolee Campbell, whom he met at the Actors Studio. Atop a bookcase is Campbell’s 1977 Emmy for an NBC special, “This Is My Son.” She quit acting shortly thereafter and is now a printer of fine-arts books.

Elizondo says he was “stunned” by the success of “Pretty Woman” in 1990. The role was “like wearing a pair of old slippers. All I did was follow one direction that Garry gave me. ‘Just create the guy you want to work for.’ . . . He was very much like my father, very much like me.”

The Watters character on “Chicago Hope” “sort of solidified that persona. That man that both men and women like, who can dance and throw a punch, a ‘40s kind of character. . . . I see him as a semi-tragic figure, a victim of his own virtues, a man who is trying to overcome something.”

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Does Elizondo see himself that way? A pregnant pause as two antique clocks tick in counterpoint: “It’s difficult for me to do the expedient thing. Honor is a very important word for me.”

He punctuates his reply with a firm clap of hands; enough said.

* “Chicago Hope” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).


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