Lou Diamond Phillips is having a very good year. It's long overdue. In the 25 years since he burst onto the big screen as singer Ritchie Valens in "La Bamba," LDP (as he is often referred to) has been working nonstop, though sometimes a bit under the radar.
But in January, his independent film "Filly Brown"had its premiere to rave reviews at the Sundance film festival. A guest appearance as a hot-headed cop on"Southland" left the door open for future episodes, and a hosting gig on the Military Channel's "An Officer and a Movie" propelled the little cable channel that began in 2005 to its best quarter ever.
Last month saw the premiere of Phillips' new series, "Longmire," a well-received drama that pulled in 4.5 million viewers for A&E.;
"The last time I remember feeling quite this overflowing with good fortune was in 1996-97 with 'Courage Under Fire' and 'The King and I' on Broadway," said Phillips on a recent overcast morning at a downtown L.A. cafe. The death of Andy Griffith that day had him reflecting on an actor "who embodied American values. He was your neighbor, your uncle, your best friend." Much like the central character in "Longmire," Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, played by Robert Taylor.
"'Longmire' is a throwback to that kind of storytelling and those kind of characters," says Phillips. "It's not about the procedures or the science."
Phillips plays Walt's best friend, bar owner Henry Standing Bear, a proud Cheyenne and "Walt's sounding board, his moral compass." They also occasionally butt heads.
"Henry is not Tonto or a sidekick," noted Craig Johnson, author of the mystery novels of which the show is based. "In all actuality, Walt is Henry's sidekick."
After getting the role, Phillips jumped on a plane and flew to Billings, Mont. to meet Marcus Red Thunder, the real-life Henry Standing Bear. He spent four days on a nearby Cheyenne reservation attending ceremonies and talking to the tribal elders.
Phillips was born at the Subic Bay U.S. Naval Station in the Philippines in 1962 and graduated from the University of Texas with a theater degree. After a guest spot on "Miami Vice," he was cast in his breakthrough roles in "La Bamba" and"Stand and Deliver."
He recalls one moment during a hair-pulling, shirt-ripping mob scene at a Watsonville, Calif., premiere of "La Bamba" that he plopped down next to Helen Mirren (husband Taylor Hackford was a producer): " 'I said to her, 'Maybe one of these days, I'll get used to all this,' and she places her hand on my arm and said, 'Oh, no, dear boy, don't get used to it because then you'll think it's normal.'"
Phillips went on to star in two "Young Guns" films alongside Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland, working continuously for the next two decades in some memorable projects and some forgettable (such as "I'm a Celebrity … Get Me out ofHere!" which, by the way, he won).
"I've got bills to pay so sometimes the choices were predicated by that, and I spent some time in the humble desert, as I like to call it," he says. One of his favorite pastimes is poker, which led him to gamble with old pros as well as gain valuable perspective from the likes of fellow players Ed Asner, James Garner and Charles Durning. "One time they asked me if I was working. I said, 'Yeah, I'm working,' but they never asked what it was. They didn't care. It did not impress them if it was $100-million film or a cable movie. You were a working actor," Phillips recalled. "That's why these guys have careers that span half a century."
Phillips considers every offer, even those that are outside the box. A prime example is his gig hosting the Military Channel's series, "An Officer and a Movie." Each week he sits down with military leaders to get commentary and insider context of the featured films.
"I'm not being hyperbolic when I say it's an honor for me to sit down across from these real American heroes," said Phillips, whose father did two tours of Vietnam. Featured guests have includedU.S. Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war after being shot down in North Vietnam, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Seal Team 6 founding member Richard Marcinko.
"He gives an added dimension to it that doesn't feel like a college lecture," said Ed Hersh, senior vice president of the Military Channel, adding that Phillips makes a point to visit the military hospitals when he's inWashington, D.C., filming and recently organized a poker night for the vets and their families.
Although just back from a 14-week shoot on the Santa Fe, N.M., set of "Longmire," Phillips is looking forward to the second season and the September release of "Filly Brown." Phillips plays Jose Tonorio, the father of a tough L.A. street poet daughter determined to get a record deal. It wasn't much of a stretch for the father of four girls.
"I'm suddenly playing characters that have the same baggage that I have, who have learned a thing or two," said Phillips. "I'm now able to bring all this experience and inner life that I have as a person because I'm finally playing guys that are my age — guys that have been around."