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Dying His Hero's Death : He's played a lover on 'Santa Barbara' and a lawyer on 'L.A. Law.' But all his life, A Martinez has wanted to play the legendary California bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. : In Luis Valdez's new play with music 'Bandido!' he gets his big chance

June 05, 1994|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Characters spring from Vasquez's flashbacks and nightmares, even emerging from coffins to talk, sing or dance. Martinez, who has grown a beard and mustache to play Vasquez, is rarely offstage for long.

The actor also sings all or part of four songs.

"It's a big challenge," Valdez says. "He has to handle tons of words, and the play is written in a style that requires command of not just English but Spanish."

The playwright says he put Martinez's name "on a short list of actors who could deliver Vasquez. I was very happy he accepted the role and equally happy to see he was as good an actor onstage as in film and TV, which isn't always the case. Some actors can't make the leap. But he trained in theater. It is a natural return for him."

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Martinez made his professional singing debut at 12 in a talent contest at Hollywood Bowl. Wearing a burgundy satin Harry Belafonte-style shirt and black pants, he sang "Kingston Market" well enough to win a local TV appearance (where he played the piano and sang) and a Polaroid camera.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, the oldest of six children, A was the third Adolpho Martinez. From assorted nicknames--among them, "little a, "A-frame" and "model A"--came A, no period. He went to Verdugo Hills High in Tujunga (where, he notes, two scenes in "Bandido!" occur), then studied theater at UCLA. He worked in Equity Waiver theater and played in rock 'n' roll bands.

He played rhythm guitar and sang in his high school surf band, the Makahas (named for a beach in Hawaii), which he says profited from "the novelty (that) I was a Mexican fronting a surf band." While at UCLA and after, he played piano for a band called Tujunga.

But by the time Martinez dropped out of UCLA in 1970, he'd already started working in movies. He calls the 1972 film "The Cowboys," directed by Mark Rydell and starring John Wayne, "the linchpin for my career as an actor. . . . All of a sudden, I had a profile and I started to get offers for work. It really gave me momentum for the first time."

He played a slew of bad guys--pimps, dope dealers and assassins--and occasionally a victim. He also played young Chicano radicals, which was what first brought him to Valdez's attention.

"I was the young Chicano street guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I seemed to be guilty of a crime," Martinez summarizes, wryly tossing off a typical story line from that period. "But somehow the hero of the show could sense that I had a good heart, then prove that it was circumstantial evidence and I was innocent. Occasionally I played the friend of the important guy."

In 1980, he played Juan Seguin, the first Latino mayor of San Antonio, for PBS' "American Playhouse," and, he says, "it was a watershed event for me. I got to actually demonstrate my heart for the first time. And it also was a chance to come together with the community of Chicano actors who normally don't get to work together."

Martinez seems keenly aware that being Latino both held him back and propelled him forward:

"I could not complain in those days, because I was working, and I felt that my ethnicity was a benefit to me. I came on the scene with some training at the right time."

Then, in 1984, came "Santa Barbara." He almost didn't take the job, he recalls. There he was, hoping to do more film than TV, when his agent was pushing him to audition for not just television, but daytime television. Three times he said no. But on the fourth call, he says, he went.

"I was pretty deep into my career by then," the actor recalls. "You start thinking, 'Maybe I'm about to run out of gas here.' You start getting tired of playing these creeps, and you start doing it less well as you get tired of it."

It was a smart decision. Cruz Castillo became key to "Santa Barbara's" story line, and Martinez emerged as a daytime-TV star. He and Marcy Walker, who played his girlfriend and, eventually, wife Eden Capwell, were among soapdom's best-known and most popular couples.

At New World Entertainment, which produced and still distributes the show, a spokesman says hundreds of requests come in each week from all over the world asking for autographed photos of Martinez and Walker. The show went off the air in the United States last year after eight seasons, but it is still seen in more than 40 countries.

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Martinez, who was recently voted Germany's most popular daytime-TV actor, has a theory about that popularity: "I think Cruz translates all over the world, because he's the ethnic guy from the poor side of the tracks who won the heart of the American princess."

"Santa Barbara" received an IMAGEN award in 1989 for Castillo, heralded as "the only major Hispanic character in daytime TV." Martinez was reportedly also the first Latino to be nominated for an Emmy as lead actor in daytime drama, and he won the Emmy in 1990 after several nominations.

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