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Jimmy Smits: A Latino Look And Class Act On 'L.a. Law'

August 07, 1987|KRISTINE McKENNA

Nineteen eighty-seven has been a big year for Jimmy Smits. Nominated last week for a best supporting actor Emmy for his portrayal of "L.A. Law's" smolderingly handsome Latino attorney Victor Sifuentes, Smits received glowing notices for his performance in John Schlesinger's occult thriller "The Believers" and was recently cited by the Latino community as a leading Latino role model.

In the face of this rising tide of good fortune the 31-year-old actor seems so calm and cool you'd think he'd been prepped for success by Ollie North's lawyer.

"My life hasn't changed that much," he explains during an interview at Orion Pictures. "Sure, people recognize me and airports can get tough, but the people who stop me tend to be real nice. I'm primarily known for my work in 'L.A. Law' and because the show features an ensemble cast, none of us has had to deal with the kind of attention Don Johnson or Bruce Willis have had."

Not yet maybe. Tanned and refreshed from a recent vacation in Puerto Rico, Smits seems touchingly oblivious to the media storm that may be gathering on his horizon. When "L.A. Law" co-star Harry Hamlin was recently plastered on the cover of People magazine as "the sexiest man in America," Smits could have taken it as a cue to batten down his own hatches.

Featuring a handful of attractive men, "L.A. Law" is beginning to be handicapped like some kind of sex-appeal derby by some members of the media; this is a disturbing development, in the opinion of this earnest actor.

"I'm flattered by the sex-symbol stuff, but it upsets me when it gets turned into a contest between me and the other guys in the cast. That 'who's the sexiest' business is a crock that the media cooked up to sell magazines, so while I say thank you very much, I don't put much stock in it."

Perhaps not, but despite the fact that Smits is a classically trained actor who paid his dues performing Shakespeare on the New York stage, even he concedes that appearance is a big part of the actor's ballgame.

"My central strength as an actor is the fact that I'm 6 foot 3," he concludes. "A certain power emanates from my size, juxtaposed with the fact that I try to find an element of sensitivity in every character I play. People enjoy seeing that because it goes against what we're led to expect as far as the way men are supposed to be-- macho and all that. Which is not to say I'm not those things! But it's an added spin.

"It's difficult to talk about this stuff," he adds with an embarrassed laugh. "People become actors because they want to hide and it's not easy to talk about myself. I accept that a certain responsibility goes with being an actor in the public eye, but I haven't found a comfortable way to deal with it."

The spotlight Smits finds himself in certainly is a long way from his start. Born in New York of mixed parentage--his father is from Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America and his mother is Puerto Rican--Smits explains that "both my parents were laborers" and describes his upbringing as "lower middle class."

"I didn't read much when I was growing up and was an average student in college (Cornell University), but I could always spend hours in the library looking through books of 18th-Century costumes and so forth. I've always loved the classics--in fact, the first movie that made an impression on me was Laurence Olivier's 'Hamlet.' I think my love of the classics has something to do with my Latino background. We're passionate people and in Shakespeare the characters are quite theatrical, the situations larger-than-life and the emotions are extreme.

"No one in my family has anything to do with show business, but I had a teacher in junior high school who encouraged me to try acting," he continues. "I started performing in plays then and have been at it ever since. I left Cornell in 1982 with a degree in drama and started working a few weeks after I got to New York. There was a brief stint as a cabdriver at first, but soon after that I got work as a day player on virtually every soap opera in New York. So I was able to work on soaps to pay my bills, and do plays I believed in. Then came the pilot for 'L.A. Law' and now here I am."

The combination of roughness and refinement Smits experienced growing up in New York is, in the opinion of "L.A. Law" co-star Susan Dey, the secret of his charm.

"Jimmy's got street sense and a raw intelligence," she comments, "but at the same time he's sophisticated and cultured. You know, he always wears sneakers with those gorgeous suits he wears on the show; to me, that's Jimmy."

Though Smits thinks of himself as a working actor who happens to be of Latino origin, the Latino community thinks of him as nothing less than a major role model, and gave him this year's Imagen Award for his contribution toward improving the image of Latinos.

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