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'L.A. Law' Star Takes a Key Role on Silver Screen

September 14, 1989|SUAD A. McCOY | McCoy is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

Jimmy Smits, the well-known Victor Sifuentes in TV's "L.A. Law," considers his role in the film "Old Gringo" a turning point.

Smits portrays Tomas Arroyo, a young general in Pancho Villa's army during the Mexican Revolution, and shares the billing with two movie giants, Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.

"This movie is a breakthrough for me," Smits said, "in that it is going to put me in a different kind of light, in a different category, if only by virtue of the fact that I'm working with two actors who have had lifetime careers, and the role necessitates me to be right up there with them."

Smits believes that he has risen to the occasion, explaining in an interview: "This particular character needed a strength and a passion and, at the same time, a sensitivity. So it's not just the machismo.

"There is another side to him (Arroyo). Someone who is very manly and at the same time someone who can cry. There is a whole emotional range that this character goes through. I knew as an actor that I could fulfill that."

The role was offered to Smits because, in the words of Fonda, whose company produced the film, "We wanted someone incredibly attractive, very sexy, with an emotional intensity who was believable as a leader. We looked through Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the United States. From the moment Jimmy walked in the door, (we) knew he was the one."

"Old Gringo," directed by Argentine Luis Puenzo, whose last film was the Oscar-winning "The Official Story," is based on the novel by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. Peck plays U.S. journalist Ambrose Bierce, the "Old Gringo" in the film, and Fonda is a U.S. schoolteacher. They travel to Mexico separately and get caught up with Arroyo in the drama of the revolucion.

The film will be released Oct. 6, about a year and a half since shooting ended and 10 months after its intended release in December, 1988.

"Of course, I was a little disappointed that it was not released last year," the New York-born actor admitted, "but it is going to be worth the wait."

When you look at Smits and listen to him describe the character, you are tempted to think that the Arroyo role came easy to him. But, no, Smits did not play himself, he said.

"That character is much different from me. He (Arroyo) is a simple person who has been thrust into this position of power, who really believes in the revolution but becomes trapped by his past. . . . And he is a leader, a strong leader. I mean, I'm none of that kind of stuff, I don't think.

"It was a difficult role," Smits said forcefully. "I did my homework, my research," including working on a Mexican accent for his character.

"At least 30% of the film is spoken in Spanish" and is subtitled in English, said Smits, whose mother is Puerto Rican. For U.S. audiences, the dialogue in Spanish will be "different," Smits said, but "it is more authentic that way." The movie is also being dubbed in Spanish for distribution abroad.

Smits recalled "a beautiful scene" in the film. After Arroyo and his men take over the hacienda where Arroyo grew up, Smits explained, the general takes the peasants inside the house "where there is this bank of mirrors and he says: 'Look at yourselves (some of the people have not previously really looked at themselves in mirrors). Be proud of what you are. This is you, somos nosotros, estos somos nosotros. You, with the long hair, you, with the bigote (mustache) . ' "

Smits leaned back in his chair during the interview, smiled and admitted: "I wanted the role really bad."

But there was a complication before he could take the role: "L.A. Law" was being taped during the same period. He solved the problem by commuting from the "Old Gringo" shooting in Mexico to Los Angeles every three weeks for three or four days.

Shifting from playing Arroyo to Sifuentes necessitated a certain amount of rigor, Smits said. "That is when education and training come in handy," he said. Smits attended Brooklyn College and received a master in fine arts degree from Cornell. He also trained as a stage actor in New York City.

The education "gave me conviction," he said. "It was a springboard for me. When I finished the graduate program I felt really grounded as an actor. I had tools to work with, on how to approach a character."

As the 6-foot-3 Smits speaks, his air is elegant, professional, intense, yet measured. It brings to mind Peck, his co-star in "Old Gringo," and 40 years his senior. Of him, Smits, 33, said: "It took me a long time to call him by his first name and, at that, only because of his insistence that it was OK to call him Greg.

"It was a great experience for me to be able to work with him," Smits said.

"And with Jane too," he hastened to add about Fonda. "She is very emotionally connected as an actress and, of course, a wonderful businesswoman, you know, and she cares a lot. She does really care about people in general."

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