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Keeping Close to the Street : When It Comes to Being a Role Model, 'Miami Vice' 's Edward James Olmos, From East Los Angeles, May Be the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business

June 22, 1986|JEFF MEYERS | Jeff Meyers is a Times staff writer

Sunday Mass on the indoor basketball court at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall is being presided over by Father Richard Estrada, a joyous soul who is giving his sermon directly beneath the backboard. Watching him perform allegorical layups are nearly 300 teen-age boys, most of them Latino, most doing time for major-league offenses from murder to armed robbery. Few are happy about attending church at 8 in the morning. But there they are, sitting rigidly in metal folding chairs, forced into attentiveness by a dozen ever-serious counselors who take a dim view of slouching, squirming and snoozing.

"Man, let's get this thing over with," a boy named Carlos says to himself as Estrada discusses the issues of sin and redemption with his captive, if not altogether receptive, audience. Bored, Carlos casually cranks his head toward the sidelines and catches sight of--"Oh, man, I can't believe it!"--the guy who plays the brooding, mysterious Lt. Martin Castillo on the hit television show "Miami Vice."

Suddenly, Carlos has a new attitude about church, but not everybody immediately shares his excitement. When Father Estrada begins introducing his "special guest," some of the hard cases get an unmistakable look in their eyes: Who wants to hear another lecture by another cop, especially a fictional cop with an icy screen persona?

But the priest warms up the crowd. "He was born in East Los Angeles," he says. That gets them going. Carlos pumps a fist, and others nod approvingly. The counselors are getting nervous, their stares beginning to crisscross the crowd like searchlights.

When silence returns, Lt. Castillo strides to the altar and takes the hand-held microphone from the priest. For a moment, he eyeballs the crowd with that inscrutable Castillo look. With his dark suit and dark looks punctuated by a thick mustache, he's dead on as the stern, almost menacing authority figure. The audience sighs collectively: Here it comes, an hour of social-worker rap.

But then an uncharacteristic smile creases Castillo's face. "I'm from 1st and Indiana," he says warmly. "Good to see all you home boys."

The solemn Lt. Castillo melts away and is replaced by the perpetually festive Edward James Olmos, 39, part charmer, part performer, part earth father. Carlos and a few others applaud and inch forward in their chairs. The counselors shift anxiously from one foot to the other and look on disapprovingly as the boys begin to loosen up.

Then Olmos politely tells the counselors to back off, to move away from the prisoners so he can make eye contact with everybody in the audience. The gym buzzes with whispers of disbelief. For an awkward moment, the counselors look at one another, at the boys, at Olmos, who stands in front of the group with a self-assured smile, and then they slowly leave their sentry positions. Olmos calls it "equalizing the room," putting everybody on the same level. From then on, the boys are his.

"I'm no different from anyone in this room," he begins. "Trust me when I tell you, man, I didn't come out of my mother's womb saying, 'To be or not to be.' I worked hard at being an actor, but I'm not special or more talented or smarter than you."

He begins to prance like a raven-haired Phil Donahue, talking to them as an instant best friend. "Did I get more chances than you when I was growing up? Not on your life, man. The only thing I did that you didn't was practice the things I liked. Every day. Seven days a week. And now they're giving me awards and paying me tons of money for doing what I like to do. If you work hard, stick to it and practice, you'll succeed. I guarantee it."

Olmos is being carinoso ("gentle and loving"), getting the boys to laugh and think and giving them some hope that their lives can turn around. They quickly respond, asking him questions and answering his. Even the counselors relax, their gazes fixed on Olmos, not their prisoners.

But just as Olmos really gets rolling, telling how it took 14 years to get his first serious paycheck as an actor, Estrada interrupts. Time is up. Olmos pleads for a few more minutes. The audience moans. He's been talking less than half an hour. Estrada explains that schedules are immutable at Central. Olmos reluctantly relinquishes the mike, bids the boys a hello from their brothers in other prisons he has visited, tells them to write him.

Afterward, as the boys march single file out of the gym, Estrada shakes his head like a favorite uncle. "Eddie really thinks he can change things around here," the priest says with affection. When he looks up, Olmos is at it again, bending

regulations by shaking hands with the boys.

As the depressing gray walls of Juvenile Hall disappear behind him, Olmos settles into the back seat of a black limousine. Its luxury is jarring after the jail visit, but the car was loaned to him by the Pepsi soft-drink company, for which he serves as an unpaid spokesman on such community promotions as anti-drug campaigns and voter-registration drives.

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