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Hispanic Heritage

George Lopez

Birth: 1963 in Mission Hills, California, United States
Occupation: comedian, actor

George Lopez has made waves as the star of the most successful English-language prime time television series about Latin Americans since Chico and the Man left the air in the 1970s. His show, George Lopez, is a sitcom featuring a fictionalized version of himself and his family. It debuted in 2002 and it has since become one of the most-watched shows on ABC.

A writer and producer as well as the star of his show, Lopez began his performing career as a standup comic in the Los Angeles, California, area in the 1980s. He also pursued a parallel career as an actor in film and television, and, in 2000, he became the first Latino to host his own radio show on an English-language radio station in Los Angeles. His show, on MEGA 92.3 F.M., was a morning drive-to-work show, and featured a radio-friendly version of some of his standup acts.

George Lopez was launched in part through the efforts of actress and show co-producer Sandra Bullock, who discovered Lopez at one of his standup comedy gigs. She had been looking for material for a new Latino television show, and she found that Lopez's stand-up acts exactly fit the bill. A Mexican American, Lopez draws heavily on his early life experiences for material for the TV show. However, these experiences do not immediately lend themselves to comedy; he had an extremely difficult childhood.

Born in 1963, Lopez grew up in Mission Hills, California. When he was two years old, his father left the family. Lopez and his mother moved in with his mother's parents. Then, when Lopez was ten years old, his mother moved out with her new husband to start a new life without him. From then on Lopez was raised by his maternal grandmother and her second husband. Lopez, who had been told that his father was dead, learned the truth about his father around the time his mother left him to be raised by his grandparents. By then, he and his family had no contact with Lopez's father.

Lopez admits that his upbringing left him with a warped sense of what is normal in a family. He has never been able to find a baby picture of himself, and as a child he never had a birthday party. "It's a form of abuse to not feel important," he later told Mireya Navarro in the New York Times. "It's considered being neglected."

To this day, Lopez rarely sees his mother, whom he has not completely forgiven for leaving him. Even his grandmother he sees only occasionally. His grandmother's husband has since died. He has largely left his early years behind; even though his show is based on these experiences, he maintains little or no contact with the people he knew when he was younger, including the man on which his character's best friend is based.

Lopez had his first experience as a standup comic at an open mic night at a club in Los Angeles in 1979 on the day he graduated from high school. He was inspired to take the plunge after watching the late Latino comedian Freddie Prinze in the TV show Chico and the Man, which had a popular run in the 1970s. Prinze remains a hero to Lopez to this day. Lopez has described the first time he saw Prinze on television as a life-changing experience, and, in fact, Prinze's former manager, Ron DeBlasio, now works for Lopez.

Being a standup comic did not come naturally to Lopez; his first experience terrified him, and he stayed away performing for four full years, working odd jobs to stay afloat. But he could not get standup comedy out of his system, and no other choice for making a living stuck, including a brief flirtation with a career in information technology. Finally, in the mid-1980s, he decided to become a full time comic. First picking up regular standup comedy gigs on stage, he also began to perform in small roles in films. In 2000 he found steady work as the host of a morning drive-time radio show.

It was during his years as a struggling standup comic that he first met the woman who would play his wife on TV, Constance Marie. Marie, like Lopez, was frustrated by the meager selection of roles available to Latinos in Hollywood, and the two hit it off. Together they conceived of a comic television series about a Latino couple. They worked well together, hashing out ideas for the possible show, which she later described as a Latin Honeymooners.

That particular idea did not find its way onto the small screen, but Marie was a natural choice to play Lopez's wife on the George Lopez show. Marie was delighted to be involved in this new project, not in small part because it represented an extremely refreshing change from the negative ways in which Latinos are often portrayed on TV and in movies. She was also delighted at the depth of the show's scripts, which are thought-provoking as well as funny.

Lopez's first major film role was as the character Eddie in the 1990 film Ski Patrol. It was at the premier of Ski Patrol that Lopez met his future wife, Ann Serrano, who is Cuban American. At the time Serrano worked as a casting director; she now works as an independent film producer. Lopez struggled through the 1990s, piecing together a living as best he could as a standup comic and in occasional film and television roles.

After putting many years as a standup comic, Lopez developed a loyal following of fans. One of these fans was Bullock, who approached Lopez after a show one night around 2000. She thought his material would make a great television series, and she told him so. Going against the advice of her own talent agents, Bullock helped Lopez get his own show. Lopez later expressed his gratitude for Bullock's help to Mark Sachs in the Los Angeles Times, saying, "I owe everything to her, because she didn't have to do this.... She did this out of a love for the culture and because of a lack of visibility for Latinos on TV."

Bullock, for her part, backs Lopez wholeheartedly. As she told the New York Times's Navarro, among the many things she appreciates about Lopez's work is his honesty: "George speaks the truth," she said. "It opens people's minds into other directions." Bullock remained a presence throughout the process of landing the show on the ABC network, and throughout the taping of the early episodes as an executive producer. Bullock also took on a recurring role on the show as an uncoordinated factory worker named Accident Amy.

Bullock has continued to guide the George Lopez show, helping to build its reputation as a sitcom with substance. In particular, after the first few episodes, she planned to work in more of the dark, edgy humor that has been a hallmark of Lopez's work as a standup comic. She admitted that this attempt would not be without risk. Her plan was to build the darker material into the show gradually to give audiences time to get used to it. If this approach didn't work, said Bullock to the Los Angeles Times's Sachs, at least the show would "go out with a bang."

In the show, Lopez plays a manager at a factory that manufactures airplane parts. His character's mother also works at the plant. In real life, Lopez's grandmother was an inspector at such a plant at the same time that Lopez himself worked there. Lopez's character on the show, like the real-life Lopez, is married. On the show, his wife's name is Angie (played by Constance Marie). Also as in real life, Lopez's character and his wife have a daughter. The similarities end there; on the show, Lopez and his wife have a son named Max and a diabetic dog named Mr. Needles.

The George Lopez show debuted in an 8:30, Wednesday night time slot in 2002. The first episode features a storyline that closely paralleled Lopez's actual experience. In the episode, Lopez's character is told by a long-lost relative that his father, contrary to what Lopez had been told growing up, is still alive. Lopez's character becomes determined to track him down.

Critical responses and ratings were immediately positive, and the show soon climbed to the number-three spot in its time period. ABC executives were very pleased with the show's success. As chairman of ABC Entertainment Lloyd Braun told Navarro in the New York Times, "It exceeds even our most optimistic hopes in terms of performance." Braun said also that the show exactly filled the bill as the kind of comedy ABC had been looking for — appealing to family audiences with a fresh perspective.

In addition, no less a figure than Cheech Marin of the famed comedy team Cheech and Chong has credited Lopez with opening doors for English-language television shows featuring Latinos. Since the George Lopez show debuted, Marin himself has gotten the greenlight to do a sitcom called The Ortegas.

Lopez's grandmother, Benne Gutierrez, now proclaims herself one of Lopez's biggest fans. "I'm very proud of him, very proud," she told Navarro in the New York Times. When asked why she never celebrated Lopez's birthday when he was growing up, she replied, "Probably because I never had a birthday. I didn't know what birthdays were."

Lopez attributes the success of the show to its universal appeal; although it is about a Latino family living in the Los Angeles area, people from as far away as Russia have told him that they relate to the show and find it funny. That to Lopez means he is doing something right.

Meanwhile, he now performs standup to packed — and very appreciative — houses. Although he had been playing to sold-out audiences before his television show took off, his audiences were not quite as generous as they were after his show became popular. "At 41 years old," he told Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, "it's really like having my first childhood again."

Personal Information

Born in 1963, in Mission Hills, CA; married Anna Serrano (a casting director and movie producer), c. 1994; children: Mayan (daughter). Addresses: Office — ABC, Inc. 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521-4551. Management — Ron DeBlasio, SDM, Inc., 740 N. La Brea Ave., 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90038. Website — George Lopez Official Website: http://www.georgelopez.com.

Awards

National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Award; Manny Mota Foundation Community Spirit Award; Vision Award, the Imagen Foundation, 2003.

CAREER

Actor in films, including: Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (also known as The Dragon and the Cobra), 1980; Ski Patrol, 1990; Fatal Instinct, 1993; Bread and Roses, 2000; Real Women Have Curves, 2002; Outta Time, 2002; Ali G Indahouse, 2002; The Original Latin Kings of Comedy, 2002; Tortilla Heaven, 2003. Television appearances include: Latino Laugh Festival, 1997; 2nd Annual Latino Laugh Festival, 1998; Fidel, 2002; George Lopez, 2002 — ; 30th Annual American Music Awards, 2003.

Further Readings

Periodicals

  • Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2003, p. E36.
  • New York Times, November 27, 2002, p. E1.
  • People, October 21, 2002, pp. 129-30.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 2002, p. D7.

Online

Source Citation

Newsmakers, Issue 4. Gale, 2003.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2004.

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