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Hispanic Heritage

Jimmy Smits

Birth: July 9, 1955 in Brooklyn, New York
Nationality: American
Ethnicity: Hispanic American
Occupation: Actor

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Awards
Biographical Essay
Career
Further Readings
Personal Information
Source Citation
Works

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

Jimmy Smits broke new ground on television in the 1980s with his portrayal of an impassioned, principled attorney on the Emmy-winning NBC drama series L.A. Law. As Victor Sifuentes, the Brooklyn-born actor represented one of the first positive, recurring images of a Hispanic character in the history of prime-time network television. He went on to spend four seasons on the ABC series N.Y.P.D. Blue, a role that once again drew immense critical praise, as well as a number of devoted fans. "Smits, who is tall, dark and drop-dead gorgeous," remarked Austin American-Statesman journalist Diane Holloway, "has gone out of his way over the years to temper his obvious sex appeal by playing serious, often flawed characters."

Born on July 9, 1955, Smits grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a solidly working-class neighborhood, and spent time with family in Puerto Rico during his youth. Smits is of Puerto Rican descent on his mother's side. His father was from Dutch Guiana, now Surinam, and managed a silk-screening factory. As a teen, Smits developed an ardent interest in theater. At Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High, he quit the football team in order to devote more time to acting in school plays and musicals. He majored in theater at Brooklyn College, but his degree plans were almost interrupted by unexpected parenthood: he was just 20 years old when his daughter, Taina, was born. He married her mother five years later. "I was always committed to the responsibility of having a child," Smits said of the dilemma in an interview with People's James Grant. "But I was too young to get married."

Almost Bombed Out of Hit Show

Smits finished Brooklyn College in 1980, and went on to earn a master's degree in theater arts from Cornell University two years later. Returning to New York City, Smits began auditioning for stage roles, and drove a cab for two months at one point to make ends meet. He quickly found work in off-Broadway, and moved on to some impressive New York Shakespeare Festival productions. In 1984 he was given his first big break--but it was a mixed blessing: he appeared in the pilot episode of Miami Vice as partner to Don Johnson's narcotics detective character, but died within the first 15 minutes. With a New York transplant as the new cop on the team, the show went on to enjoy tremendous success in the mid-1980s.

Smits's first feature-film role was a solid one, although again it presented a double-edged sword for the Latino actor: he appeared as a Chicago drug kingpin in the 1986 Gregory Hines-Billy Crystal comedy Running Scared. That same year, he was invited to give a personal audition for a new drama series being cast by the creators of Hill Street Blues. Television producer Steven Bochco was looking for a new, unknown actor to take the role of Victor Sifuentes in L.A. Law, a drama centered on the cases and characters at a fictional Los Angeles law firm. The Sifuentes character was written as a public-defender attorney, ardent about social justice issues, but during the pilot episode is lured by the prospect of a much posher job in private practice. Yet the nervous Smits botched his New York tryout and, determined to win the plum role, went to Los Angeles to take part in simultaneous auditions for it. His second try impressed Bochco and the other executives, and he won the role.

L.A. Law quickly became a hit following its debut in September of 1986, with Smits and fellow cast members Susan Dey, Corbin Bernsen, and Harry Hamlin garnering rave reviews. Smits also attracted a sizeable fan base as one of the show's resident well-dressed, handsome attorneys. "Smits may be the most appealing Latin leading man since Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas were the hunks del dia," wrote Grant in People at the time. Grant remarked that television roles for Latinos had, in recent memory, portrayed them as criminals, or at the very least depicted them living in an impoverished urban setting; he deemed both the fictional Sifuentes and the actor playing him "the wave of the future." Smits agreed with Grant's assessment. "We're alike in that Victor has gone to college and he's involved with a profession he's very good at. Certainly that's not something that's being explored a lot on television."

Smits won his first Emmy award, for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, in 1990. By 1992, with his five-year L.A. Law contract about the expire, the actor chose not to renew it in order to pursue a career in film. He had made the occasional appearance, when his television schedule permitted, in a few Hollywood features, but his first post-L.A. Law role came opposite Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck in Old Gringo. Peck played real-life American journalist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished in Mexico during its 1913 revolution. The script posits that he joined a unit of Pancho Villa's army. Smits portrayed the unit's commander, who descends into madness. The film did poorly at the box office, as did Smits's next project, a medical thriller called Vital Signs. In 1991, he took a stab at comedy and earned solid reviews for Switch alongside Ellen Barkin.

Returned to Television Stardom

In the early 1990s, Bochco asked Smits if he would be interested in playing a good-guy detective in an amoral world of New York City policing for a planned new television series. Smits declined, and Bochco rewrote the "Flinn" part into a "Detective Kelly" one for actor David Caruso. N.Y.P.D. Blue was the hit new show of the 1993-94 season, and it was nominated for 26 Emmys that first year. But there were problems on the set with Caruso, and he reportedly wanted out of his contract to return to film. Smits, meanwhile, had found that his own film career seemed to have stalled. He was appearing in made-for-television films such as Stephen King's The Tommyknockers and The Cisco Kid. He was in Morocco making a biblical epic for Showtime with Halle Berry, Solomon and Sheba, when Bochco called and again offered him an N.Y.P.D. Blue role.

This time Smits took advantage of the offer. He made his debut during the 1994-95 season as Detective Bobby Simone, the quiet, seemingly shy cop who served as foil for the more combative Detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz. Simone, assigned to be Sipowicz's new partner, was recently widowed, and raised pigeons as a hobby. Though it was considered a quintessential "nice-guy" role with little character development, Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker wrote, after the end of Smits's first year on the show, that the actor "has pulled off one of the acting coups of the season." Tucker admitted that he had been part of the chorus of naysayers when it was announced that Smits was replacing Caruso, asserting then "that Smits was a problematic, if not misconceived, choice for the costarring role in this knottiest of all current cop dramas." Tucker believed the show's award-winning team of writers had devised an ingenious ploy: "the writers placed us in the same position as [Sipowicz]--we were sizing up this guy Simone, looking to see how tough and how smart he was."

As N.Y.P.D. Blue evolved, Simone battled demons related to his wife's death and more deadly ones encountered in his line of work. He also fell in love with a colleague who was fighting her own battle with alcohol. He received another five Emmy nominations for his work on the powerfully charged drama series. Co-star Franz won the lead actor Emmy four times for playing Sipowicz--a character that, as Holloway wrote in the Austin American-Statesman, serves as "the Everyman lots of people identify with, the heart of the show. Smits' job was to provide powerful charisma and reaction, which he did with power to spare. It was a wonderful happenstance that he also gave TV a rare Hispanic hero. There've been enough Latino drug dealers to last a lifetime, so Simone was a treat." A critic for Entertainment Weekly also delivered praise for both the character and the actor. "Smits may not have any Emmys to show for it ... but it's exactly that quiet, coiled power that kept the show on track, especially in the uncertain days" after Caruso's highly publicized departure, the article asserted. Bochco, the show's co-creator, likened Smits to "a Ferrari," in the same Entertainment Weekly piece. "You tap the pedal and get this instant burst of power," the producer asserted. "You haven't even begun to put your foot to the floor. You don't have to--there's always something in reserve."

Worked to Further Latino Arts

Smits remained on N.Y.P.D. Blue until the end of 1998, when he again decided to leave to pursue new film roles. In 1995, he had won outstanding reviews for his lead in Mi Familia, an intergenerational saga about a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles from the 1920s through the 1980s. Smits played one of the sons, Jimmy Sanchez, a withdrawn young military veteran who falls in with a criminal element when he returns to civilian life. He becomes a father, eventually accepts responsibility for his son, and marries a Salvadoran woman to save her from deportation. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum gave Mi Familia a favorable review, calling it "one of those uplifting, life-affirming things you'd see on public television's American Playhouse ... and as such it's unshakable in its inspirational intensity, with an earnestness that might jade the dyspeptic." James M. Wall, writing in Christian Century, declared that "Smits is especially strong ... in a deeply moving scene that is also one of the film's strongest tributes to familial love."

Smits also appeared in the lead in a 2000 prizefighting drama, Price of Glory. He played an aging former middleweight, Arturo Ortega, who is determined to turn his three sons into a powerhouse boxing trio. Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman reviewed the film, and while granting that elements of the story seemed predictable, "Smits' performance is more shaded than that. He makes this driven patriarch a complex, sympathetic dynamo, boiling over with love and resentment and ambition and Latin pride." Smits also returned to the stage in 2002, after an absence of some years, in a New York Public Theater production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as Count Orsino.

Smits was pragmatic about his career and the options open to him. When asked by Washington Times writer Gary Arnold about whether he had consciously tried to choose film roles over television parts, Smits replied, "I don't see the boundaries.... People go back and forth from series to TV movies to features all the time now. It's all work, and it's always good roles you want to find. Very few actors are ever in a position to get too choosy. I still go out and audition for stuff."

Despite the dramatic changes in the entertainment industry since he began on L.A. Law in the mid-1980s, Smits has teamed with others to raise awareness about the still-meager numbers of Latino characters on television and film. He co-founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997 with actor Esai Morales. The group's goal is to increase visibilty of Latinos in film and television, and also behind the cameras throughout the industry; its fundraising events support a scholarship fund and lobbying efforts. Smits pointed out in a 1998 interview with Los Angeles Times writer Yvette C. Doss that there was still much work to be done. "The representation of Latinos in the media today is abysmal," he noted, and talked about his work for the ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Awards, which serve to highlight positive images of Latinos in the arts. "The ALMA Awards deal with the fact that the Latino performer and the Latino in this country is a significant part of the mosaic of what this country's all about ... I'm not saying everybody needs to be this PC shining knight," he told Doss. "But we need to level the playing field so that we are not solely getting negative stereotypes."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born on July 9, 1955, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Cornelis (a plant manager) and Emelina Smits; married, 1981 (divorced, 1987); children: Taina, Joaquin Education: Brooklyn College, BA, 1980; Cornell University, MA, 1982. Memberships: National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, co-founder, 1997. Addresses: Office--c/o National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, 1010 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Suite 210, Washington, DC 20007.

AWARDS

Imagen award, Hispanic Media Image Task Force, 1987; National Hispanic Bar of Mexico honor, 1988; Emmy award for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1990; Bravo award, National Council of La Raza, for outstanding television series actor in a crossover role, 1996; Golden Globe Award, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1996.

CAREER

Actor, 1982-.

WORKS

Selected works

Film

  • Running Scared, 1986.
  • The Believers, 1987.
  • Old Gringo, 1989.
  • Vital Signs, 1990.
  • Fires Within, 1991.
  • Switch, 1991.
  • Mi Familia, 1995.
  • Lesser Prophets, 1997.
  • Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones, 2002.

Television

  • L.A. Law, 1986-1991.
  • The Tommyknockers, 1993.
  • The Cisco Kid, 1994.
  • N.Y.P.D. Blue, 1994-1998.
  • Solomon & Sheba, 1995.

FURTHER READINGS

Books

  • Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Periodicals

  • Austin American-Statesman, November 24, 1998, p. E1.
  • Back Stage West, September 5, 2002, p. 12.
  • Christian Century, July 5, 1995, p. 667.
  • Entertainment Weekly, November 11, 1994, p. 23; May 19, 1995, p. 44; June 9, 1995, p. 14; June 23, 1995, p. 42; October 23, 1998, p. 56; April 14, 2000, p. 50; August 2, 2002, p. 64.
  • Esquire, March 1996, p. 116.
  • In Style, February 1998, p. 89.
  • Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1997, p. 6; June 4, 1998, p. 6; November 23, 1998, p. 6.
  • Maclean's, February 19, 2001, p. 48.
  • New Statesman, August 1, 1997, p. 41.
  • People, June 22, 1987, p. 105; November 2, 1987, p. 13; October 23, 1989, p. 17; May 20, 1991, p. 12.
  • Washington Times, March 31, 2000, p. 5.

SOURCE CITATION

"Jimmy Smits." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 3. Gale Group, 2003.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003.

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