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Hispanic Heritage

Edward James Olmos

Birth: February 24, 1947 in East Los Angeles, California
Occupation: actor, singer

Edward James Olmos is one of the most influential voices of the Latino community in the United States. As an actor, he has produced a commendable body of work that has earned him numerous awards and unlimited accolades. But Olmos's life is more than a story of poor kid from the barrio who made it big in Hollywood. He is not only an actor but an activist, with a deep commitment to his community.

Grew Up in the Barrio

Olmos was born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles to Pedro and Eleanor (Huizar) Olmos. Olmos credited his parents, who divorced in 1955, for being his lifelong inspiration. He told Instyle's Kathryn Hart, "My mother is the reason I know God is a woman. She's worked for 20 years--from age 54 to 74--at County General Hospital in Los Angeles. She has worked from 11 o'clock at night to 7 in the morning in the AIDS ward, where she's held the hands of many, many people as they died. It's a gift."

Although diverse in culture and language, the East Los Angeles neighborhood in which Olmos grew up shared the common denominator of poverty. "Inside this world, everyone was the same," he told Guy D. Garcia of Time. "We were all poor. And the only way to survive it was through a constant struggle of trying to be better today than you were yesterday." As a youngster, Olmos stayed out of trouble and out of the gangs that dominated much of life in the barrio. Instead of running with a gang, Olmos played baseball, which taught him discipline, patience, and determination--all traits that helped propel him out of the barrio. He excelled at the sport, winning the Golden State batting championship at the age of 14.

At the age of 15, Olmos's hopes of a career in baseball turned into dreams of singing and dancing, primarily because he believed that it held out more promise for getting him out of poverty. Despite lacking an overabundance of natural talent, Olmos committed himself to learning to play the piano and sing. By the time he graduated from high school, he had formed the band Pacific Ocean, which played frequently at clubs along Sunset Strip. It was during a Pacific Ocean gig that Olmos meet his first wife, Kaija Keel, daughter of actor Howard Keel. The two hit it off and married in 1971; by the time he was 25 years old, Olmos was married with two children. The couple stayed together until their sons were grown, divorcing in 1994.

Despite his longhaired rocker appearance, Olmos maintained his industrious lifestyle. He attended East Los Angeles City College during the day and often studied at the clubs at night, pulling out his books during breaks between sets. At first he pursued psychology and criminology, until Olmos signed up for a drama course to help him with his stage presence as a singer. Much to his surprise, he discovered that he enjoyed acting, and soon he had fallen in love with the idea of becoming an actor. Making enough money as an actor to provide for his family proved to be challenging initially. Undeterred, after Pacific Ocean broke up, Olmos bought the band's oversized van and started a business delivering antique furniture to supplement his income.

Hauling furniture during the day, Olmos spent his nights working in experimental theater. Eventually he began landing bit parts in television shows. Almost always playing a tough, bad-guy role, Olmos was awarded small parts in episodes of such television series as Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, ChiPs, Medical Center, Magnum, P.I., and Police Woman. He also had minor roles in several films, including Alambrista and Aloha, Bobby and Rose. Looking back, Olmos laughed at his acting abilities early in his career. As he told Elaine Dutka of Time, "I was the only person Jack Lord [of Hawaii Five-O] shot in the back, ever.... That's how bad I was."

Zoot Suit

Olmos's first major break came on the theatrical stage in 1978 when he landed a leading role of the Los Angeles production of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit. The play, a musical drama, is a fictionalized account of the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which a group of young Hispanic men are falsely convicted of murder following what became known as the 1942 Los Angeles zoot suit riots. Olmos tried out for the part of "El Pachuco," the leader of the gang and the epitome of the angry, macho Hispanic man who acts as the narrator and conscience of the story. At the audition, Olmos told Garcia, "I spoke in caló, street jive from the streets of East L.A.--a mix of Spanish, English, and Gypsy. They asked me if I could dance, and I hit a perfect set of splits, turning the brim of my hat as I came up." Awarded the role, Olmos played the part to perfection and received rave reviews for his performance.

Zoot Suit was only scheduled for a ten-week run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; however, after positive reviews, the production ran eight more weeks before relocating to the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, where it ran for the next nine months. The production then moved to Broadway's Winter Garden theater, where it was not as well received and subsequently closed after only seven weeks. For his performance, he earned a Los Angeles Critics Circle Award, and his Broadway appearance garnered him the Theatre World Award for most outstanding new performer. He was also nominated for an Antoinette Perry Award. In 1982 Zoot Suit was released as a feature film, with Olmos retaining the role of El Pachuco. Despite the production's short run in New York City and a lukewarm reception of the film version, Olmos had clearly made his mark.

Following the success of Zoot Suit, Olmos no longer had to knock on doors for bit parts. During the early 1980s he accepted supporting roles in the movies Wolfen (1981) and Blade Runner (1982). However, early in his career as a known and sought-after actor, Olmos decided to accept only projects that held meaning for him. For this reason, he turned down director Brian De Palma's offer to cast him in his movie Scarface, which told the story of a Cuban immigrant who is drawn into the violent world of drug-dealing. He also refused parts in Red Dawn and Firestarter and, although he made numerous appearances on the show, Olmos passed up an opportunity to join the permanent cast of the popular television drama Hill Street Blues because the required five-year contract was exclusive, thus denying him the ability to take on other, more meaningful, projects during that time.

Olmos's next major project was the 1982 Public Broadcasting Company's (PBS) American Playhouse production of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, in which Olmos played the title role. The film was based on the true tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican folk hero who was traditionally held to be a fierce bandito. However, after researching the film, Olmos discovered that Cortez was, in fact, not an outlaw at all, but a poor rancher and honest family man. Only through misinterpretation and a misunderstanding between cultures was Cortez wrongly accused of murder in 1901 and pursued across Texas by a 600-man posse. After its run on television, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was slated for the big screen; however, no major studios could be persuaded to release it, perhaps in part because Olmos spoke Spanish throughout the film with no subtitles. Determined that the story of Cortez was too important to let fade, Olmos began a five-year personal crusade to distribute the film across the country.

In 1984 Olmos joined the cast of television series Miami Vice as Lieutenant Martin Castillo. The show, which centered on the careers of two undercover vice-squad cops, garnered a significant viewing audience even though the majority of critics were less than enthusiastic. Olmos, for his part, received commendable reviews, and although he did little promoting of the show and voiced concerns that it propagated stereotypes, he earned him an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

Stand and Deliver

The standout performance of Olmos's career thus far came in the 1988 release of Stand and Deliver. The film told the true story of Bolivian-born Jaime Escalante, a successful computer scientist who left his career to teach math to underprivileged Hispanic kids from the barrios of East Los Angeles. The inspirational story focused on Escalante's relationship with his students at Garfield High School as he challenged them to achieve more than expected and more than they believed they could. Then, in 1982 after scoring higher than expected on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam, they are launched into controversy when the Educational Testing Service suspected foul play and opened an investigation.

Olmos portrayed Escalante with intensity and exceptional accuracy. To prepare for the part, Olmos studied Escalante for hours, observing him both in and out of the classroom. He also gained 40 pounds and spent hours studying tapes of Escalante to perfect his speech and mannerisms. Olmos even considered moving in with Escalante for a time, but Escalante's wife vetoed that idea. The movie grossed more than nine times its modest production costs, and Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance as Escalante. Hoping to bring the film to the largest possible audience, Olmos convinced several major corporations to sponsor his efforts to place a copy of the film in every school, library, and youth organization across the nation.

Following Stand and Deliver Olmos appeared in numerous films, often in conjunction with director Robert M. Young, with whom he had formed the production company, YOY Productions. He played Gypsy in Triumph of the Spirit (1989) and a baseball talent scout in Talent for the Game (1991). In 1992 he delved into directing as he coproduced, directed, and starred in American Me, a graphic and realistic story of crime and violence in the United States as it moves from the streets into the prisons. Olmos portrayed a character named Santana, a gang member who lands in Folsom State Prison but continues to run his Mexican Mafia from his jail cell, operating drugs, gambling, prostitution, and extortion rings. Intense and accurate, the film served as a message of the dangerous, and often tragic, nature of gang and prison life.

Once again with something important to say, Olmos traveled the country promoting the film and attending special screenings for youth organizations and communities. "This film is not for one race, one subculture, one age range," Olmos explained to Newsweek's Jack Kroll. "Gangs teach a distorted discipline, a distorted familial bonding, a distorted sense of pride and power. I made this movie to allow all society to take a journey into an uncharted land that they would never have the opportunity to go into." Olmos also took part in the production of Lives in the Hazard. Released in 1994 as a follow-up, the film was a documentary that revisited some of the real-life gang members that served as extras in American Me. For his involvement with American Me Olmos received death threats from the actual Mexican Mafia and for a time feared for life. In the same year Olmos married Lorraine Bracco, an actress and ex-wife of actor Harvey Keitel. In January of 2002 Bracco filed for divorce from Olmos.

Also notable on the list of Olmos's film work were his roles in My Family/Mi Familia (1995), a film in which he served as the narrator of a multigenerational Mexican-American family saga, and Selena, (1997) the story of the life and murder of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla. Along with his film career, Olmos regularly appeared in television movies, series, and specials. He starred Home Box Office's film The Burning Season (1994), a film about the life of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes, for which Olmos received a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award nomination. Olmos also worked on Dead Man's Walk (1996), the prequel to the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove, and 12 Angry Men (1997). In 2001 Olmos appeared in Steve Martini's The Judge and Showtime's production of In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized account of three Dominican women martyred in 1960 during the last days of Dominican dictator Trujillo's rule. He has also narrated and contributed to numerous documentaries.

In 2002 Olmos joined the cast of a new television series, American Family, which airs on PBS. The episodes evolve around the lives of a Hispanic-American family in Los Angeles. Olmos plays Jess Gonzales, the conservative and old-fashioned father, something of a Latino Archie Bunker, who attempts with moderate success to deal with and understand his five grown children. It is the first Hispanic-dominated series to ever air on television.

Actor as Activist

Olmos is not only an actor, but also a tireless activist. Although sometimes the two roles blend together, as they did in his projects The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Stand and Deliver, and American Me, Olmos has spent a vast majority of his time over the course of his career simply working to make life better for others. By his own count, he spends 94 percent of his time working for free. Looking at his long resume of good deed doing, the number doesn't seem unrealistic. Besides his continually packed schedule on the speaker's circuit, Olmos offers his support to a wide range of social programs.

By living his life giving as much as possible and expecting little in return, Olmos hopes to leave a worthy legacy. As he told Hispanic's Katherine Diaz, "I would hate to look back on my life and only see myself as a person who made lots of money and was a star and made Rambo and Terminator movies. I have made my body of work something that I am proud of and that in 100 years my great-great-grandchildren will go and see my work and say, 'Well, grandpa really did some extraordinarily different kinds of work.'"

 

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles; married Kaija Keel, 1971; divorced, 1994; children: two sons, Mico and Bodie (with Keel); married Lorraine Bracco, 1994; divorced, 2002 Education: studied at East Los Angeles City College. Memberships: Natl Goodwill Ambassador, UNICEF; Recruiting New Teachers; UCLA Mentoring Program; the Natl Council on Adoption; spokesperson: Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, AIDS Awareness Foundation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Destructive Decisions, Parkinson's Disease Foundation, and Alzheimer's Foundation. Addresses: Agent--Artists Agency, 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

AWARDS

Best Actor, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, for Zoot Suit, 1978; Theatre World Award, for Zoot Suit, 1979; Antoinette Perry Award, for Zoot Suit, 1979; Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for Miami Vice, 1985; Golden Globe Award, for The Burning Season, 1994.

CAREER

lead vocalist of Pacific Ocean, 1960s; owner of a furniture-moving business, 1970s; starred as El Pachuco in theatre production of Zoot Suit, 1978; numerous films, including: Blade Runner, 1982;The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1983; Stand and Deliver, 1988; American Me, 1992; A Million to Juan, 1994; My Family/Mi Familia, 1995; Selena, 1997; The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, 1997; The Road to El Dorado, 2000; In the Time of the Butterflies, 2001; tv series: American Family, 2002-.

WORKS

Selected filmography

  • Zoot Suit, 1981.
  • Wolfen, 1981.
  • Blade Runner, 1982.
  • The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez , 1983.
  • Miami Vice (television series), 1984--1989.
  • Saving Grace, 1986.
  • Stand and Deliver, 1987.
  • Triumph of the Spirit, 1989.
  • Talent for the Game, 1991.
  • American Me , 1992.
  • Roosters (television), 1993.
  • Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills (television miniseries), 1994.
  • The Burning Season--The Chico Mendes Story (television movie), 1994.
  • A Million to Juan , 1994.
  • Mirage, 1995
  • My Family/Mia Familia , 1995.
  • Dead Man's Walk (television movie), 1996.
  • Caught , 1996.
  • The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit , 1997.
  • The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca , 1997.
  • 12 Angry Men (television movie), 1997.
  • Hollywood Confidential, 1997.
  • The Limbic Region, 1997.
  • Selena, 1997.
  • The Wall (television documentary), 1998.
  • Bonanno: A Godfather's Story, 1999.
  • The Princess and the Barrio Boy, 2000.
  • The Road to El Dorado, 2000.
  • In the Time of the Butterflies (television movie), 2001.
  • The Judge (television movie), 2001.
  • American Family (television series), 2002.

 

FURTHER READINGS

Books

  • Dictionary of Hispanic Biography . Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1996.
  • International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses . New York: St. James Press, 1996.
  • Newsmakers . Issue 1. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1990.
  • Rooney, Terrie M., ed. Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III. Farmington Hills: Gale Research, 1998.

Periodicals

  • Hispanic, December 2000.
  • Instyl , February 2002.
  • Los Angeles Magazine, April 1993.
  • The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1992.
  • Newsweek, March 30, 1992.
  • People Weekly, January 21, 2002.
  • Star Tribune ( Minneapolis, MN), January 30, 2002.
  • Time, April 4, 1988; July 11, 1988.
  • The Toronto Sun, January 24, 2002.
  • The Washington Times, January 21, 2002.

On-line

  • Behind the Scenes, Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.org/americanfamily/.
  • Sony Classics, www.sonyclassics.com/caught/crew/olmos.html.

 

SOURCE CITATION

Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 1. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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