Burning With Passion

  • He's a samurai, a warrior, very principled and loyal. But there's also the dark side -- the ninja -- in him. He knows he can use his powers in negative ways. His voice is very Zen.

    -- Edward James Olmos on Miami Vice's Lieut. Martin Castillo

    The entertainment program at the penal institution for youth outside Los Angeles is nearly over when the emcee introduces the show's biggest attraction. "We now have the man who plays Lieut. Castillo on Miami Vice," he begins, and a few of the couple of hundred so-called wards, most of whom are in their teens and early 20s, start to applaud. As Edward James Olmos, award-winning actor and star of the film Stand and Deliver, walks down the aisle, some of the men reach out to shake his hand, while others stare stiffly ahead. Dressed casually in a black leather jacket and pleated pants, Olmos gazes out at the sea of mostly brown and black faces, appearing taller than his 5 ft. 10 in.

    "How many of you guys think I'm smarter than you?" he asks. Half the wards raise their hands. "I ain't smarter than anyone here, man," says Olmos, suddenly injecting street slang into his normally impeccable English. "I may have developed my brain a little more in high school, but I think we're pretty equal. I grew up in East L.A., just a few miles from here. You might say I was lucky. And I was. But I made a choice. I chose to start acting. I didn't come out of my mother's womb saying" -- and now he introduces a heavy Spanish accent -- " 'To be or not to be . . . that is the question.' "

    Olmos pauses to let the laughter die down. His jive, cajoling pep talk has begun to win the men over, but more important, he has convinced them that he really cares. The impression is no public relations put-on. Deeply committed to helping the down-and-out, Olmos for the past ten years has taken his rap to hospitals, schools, Indian reservations, detention centers, libraries and veterans hospitals across the country. "It's addictive," he explains. "A few hours of energy come back in waves for years. It's a wonderful feeling to make people forget about themselves. It's real soul food for me."

    Olmos, who is 41, is getting plenty of nourishment these days. Nine years after he earned a Tony nomination and L.A. Drama Critics award for his portrayal of the streetwise El Pachuco in Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, he is being touted for an Oscar nomination for his riveting performance in Stand and Deliver. Based on a true story, the film depicts three years in the life of a Bolivian-born math teacher named Jaime Escalante, who in 1982 helped 18 of his students at East Los Angeles' gang-ridden Garfield High pass the Educational Testing Service's advanced placement test in calculus. After the ETS suggested that the students had cheated, Escalante protested. He was vindicated when all the students who retook the test passed with comparable or better scores.

    Stand has grossed $13 million, more than nine times as much as its initial cost -- not spectacular, but more than respectable for a movie that probably would not have been made five years ago. The film never dilutes its simple, tough-love message. Olmos, by turns funny and bold, is utterly convincing as Escalante, a stubborn optimist who refuses to compromise his ideals or lower his sights, exhorting his charges sotto voce to put two and two together and learn their way out of the barrio.

    But Stand and Deliver is more than a simple parable of effort rewarded. Even more than La Bamba, it has sent a jolt of hope and renewed self-esteem through Hispanic communities across the country. As the news about the film has spread, Olmos and Escalante have become role models for millions of Hispanic Americans, living proof that with the requisite amount of what Escalante calls ganas (desire), they can lift themselves out of the barrio and become teachers, mathematicians, movie stars -- anything they want. Olmos is "very inspirational, a real hero to the Hispanic community," observes Producer Moctesuma Esparza (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez). "He not only has star quality, but belief and drive."

    Olmos' galvanizing portrayal only confirms what his fans have known for a long time: he is not only possibly the best Hispanic-American actor of his generation, but one of the best performers working today. His characters are fueled by a highly controlled intensity. Playing the teacher in Stand and Deliver or Lieut. Castillo in Miami Vice, he holds in his energy, radiating it through a laser-beam stare. He is every minority rebel putting his fireworks on a long fuse. In a few roles -- the strutting El Pachuco in Zoot Suit or the crazed, canine avenger in Wolfen -- Olmos cuts loose and explodes with more than his eyes. Nostrils flare, teeth flash, the body language becomes incendiary.

    Like his grandly obsessive contemporaries Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, Olmos is a demon for authenticity. To play Escalante, he altered himself physically, gaining 40 lbs. and enduring a tedious makeup process daily to create a balding pate over his thick hair. The actor also spent hundreds of hours studying Escalante's speech patterns on recorded tapes and observing the teacher's mannerisms and personal habits both during and after school hours. "He even wanted to move in with Jaime," recalls the movie's director, Ramon Menendez, "but Escalante's wife wouldn't allow it."

    Olmos pursues his goals with extraordinary concentration. When major studios were reluctant to distribute 1982's The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he boldly insisted until they caved in. "The odds were against us," recalls Cortez Director Robert Young. "But Eddie believed we could make it work, and we did." More recently, the actor has been negotiating with several major U.S. corporations to make copies of Stand and Deliver available to every library, school and boy's and girl's club in the country.

    Where does Olmos get off thinking he can change the world single-handedly? "I always questioned authority," he says. "I wanted to make sure that the rules in my game were wide open -- new, clean, fresh, redefined every time so I could keep growing. I was always ambitious. I had a sense of - possibility."

    The roots of that confidence lie just a few miles from the gates of Garfield High, in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. "Boyle Heights was the Ellis Island of the West Coast," says Olmos, "and I thought that was what the world was like. On our small lane we had a Hispanic family with 13 kids, Native Americans, Koreans, Chinese, Mexicans, Russians. It was a fantastic environment."

    The Olmos family history is almost as colorful. Olmos' maternal great- grandparents were, as he puts it, "major" Mexican revolutionaries -- journalists who owned the leading radical newspaper in Mexico City before moving to Los Angeles. Olmos' mother Eleanor Huizar met Pedro Olmos, a young businessman, while visiting Mexico City. The couple married and raised three children: Peter, now 44, Edward and Esperanza, 38.

    Olmos, who grew up with an extended family in a small house on Cheesbrough's Lane, still has fond memories of life in the barrio. During a visit to his old neighborhood, he pauses before a vacant lot bordered by a garbage dumper and two dilapidated cars. "Coming back really tore me up," he says. He would like to turn his great grandparents' old wood-frame house into a museum "not out of ego, but to show kids that starting from here, they can go anywhere they want." Yet it took him a while to find his own path. When Olmos was eight, his parents were divorced. It was a painful time, and Eddie took refuge from the street gangs and drugs by concentrating on baseball. It was also a way of sidestepping the legal arrangement that restricted his father to only eight hours with young Eddie every 15 days. "My dad couldn't come to the house, but he could come to the ball park," says Olmos. "At every game I ever played, he was there."

    Meanwhile, the Golden State batting champ had been seduced by a new love: music. Olmos taught himself to sing and play the piano and, by 1961, was good enough to join a band called the Pacific Ocean. Sporting hair down to his waist, Olmos was the group's lead vocalist. "I was a terrible singer," he admits, "but, boy, could I scream and dance!"

    By the mid-'60s, Olmos was making his way in two worlds. By day he attended East Los Angeles College and California State University, and by night he performed -- sometimes till past dawn -- with the Pacific Ocean, then the house band at Gazzarri's nightclub on Sunset Strip. He began taking acting classes to improve his show. "I started acting to learn how to become a better singer," he says. "Then the whole thing switched on me. I discovered that the spoken word is easier to project than the sung word."

    One night a young woman called Kaija Keel walked into Gazzarri's with a girlfriend who had dated Olmos. The daughter of Actor Howard Keel, Kaija (pronounced Ki-ya) had just ended a romance with her high school sweetheart, Actor Jeff Bridges. Olmos found himself drawn to Kaija's "frankness and tremendous sense of independence."

    Eddie, a long-haired Chicano rocker, and Kaija, the daughter of a famous actor, had a hard job convincing both their families that they had a future together. "I was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner before the movie appeared," grins Olmos. "It was quite a dinner. They served artichokes, and I'd never eaten one." Even after the couple was married in a small ceremony in 1971, the Keels "weren't thrilled" by the union, says Kaija. "I was very mad at them for a while, but now that I'm a parent, I can understand. They were worried about me going off so young with a crazy person with no money."

    By the time he was 25, Olmos had two sons: Mico, from the Spanish mi hijo (my son), and Bodie, named after a ghost town in eastern California. To support his growing brood, he took a job delivering antique furniture between acting and music gigs. By the early '70s, Olmos was landing small parts on shows like Kojak and Hawaii Five-O, often as bartenders and two-bit hooligans. "I was the only person Jack Lord shot in the back, ever," he notes dryly. "That's how bad I was." Then in 1978, during an audition for a play at Los Angeles' Mark Taper theater, he was asked if he would like to try out for Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez's musical drama about the famous "Sleepy Lagoon" case of 1942, in which a group of Hispanic youths were wrongly convicted of a murder.

    Olmos was right on the wavelength of "El Pachuco," the strutting, posing, super-macho narrator and mordant conscience of the story. "I spoke in calo, street jive from the streets of East L.A. -- a mix of Spanish, English and Gypsy," he says. "They asked me if I could dance, and I hit a perfect set of splits, turning the brim of my hat as I came up." He got the part.

    Zoot Suit, which opened in February 1978, was scheduled to run at the Mark Taper for ten days. It ended up playing for a year before moving to Broadway, where it closed after seven weeks. Olmos' disappointment was soothed by a Tony nomination (he had already won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award and a Theater World award) and the chance to star in the film version of the play, which Valdez also directed. Acting roles came in faster after that. Wolfen (1981) was followed by Blade Runner (1982), in which Olmos played a multiethnic in the year 2019, who he explains, "had German blue eyes, Japanese-slanted eyes, Chinese yellow skin and spoke ten languages fluently."

    Olmos' next role was as star of a PBS special, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, a true story about a Mexican cowhand who became the object of one of the biggest manhunts in Texas history, all because of an incorrectly translated word. He threw himself into the part with characteristic fervor, studying old newspaper clippings and photographs for clues to Cortez's inner state. The most audacious touch, perhaps, was the decision to have Cortez speak Spanish throughout the movie -- no subtitles. "I wanted to put non- Spanish speaking viewers in the same predicament as the law-abiding citizens of that community," says Olmos. "I wanted the audience to be in the shoes of Gregorio Cortez."

    And he wanted that audience to be enormous. "After the movie aired on American Playhouse, everybody was ready to put it to bed," recalls Tom Bower, a friend of Olmos' who plays the interpreter in Cortez. "For Eddie, it was just the beginning." Olmos devoted an extraordinary five years to making and promoting Cortez, and the effort took a heavy emotional and financial toll. At one point, friends held a fund raiser to help with his travel expenses. Passing up potentially lucrative parts in such films as Scarface, Firestarter, Band of the Hand, Streets of Fire and Red Dawn put a severe strain on the family budget as well.

    Meanwhile, Olmos had been getting a reputation for inflexibility, an actor who tended to ruffle feathers on the set. During a Kojak appearance, his reluctance to say a line he did not think believable prompted Telly Savalas to call him a "prima donna." This intractability came to the fore when Producer Michael Mann called Olmos in 1984 and asked him to take the role of Lieut. Martin Castillo on a new show called Miami Vice. "I told him I couldn't do it," recalls Olmos. "It wasn't that I didn't need it. As it was, my wife and I couldn't go out to dinner or to shows. But I didn't want to tie myself down." Mann called back three more times. "He kept increasing the offer," says Olmos, "promising more money than I'd made in a lifetime for one year's work." On the fifth call Olmos accepted, but only after he had won creative control of the character and the option to do outside work.

    It took several episodes of Vice before Castillo, a taciturn cop with a painful past, caught on with viewers. "When we ran The Golden Triangle -- the 13th show -- my character went through the roof," Olmos says. "People started to understand that this was a man who had suffered. A man who has been wounded. And they began to realize why he was that way." In 1985 the increasingly visible star walked off with an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a drama series and the next year won a Golden Globe as well. Though he has no plans to quit Vice, he agrees with critics who say that the quality of the scripts has deteriorated. Says he: "The show was victimized by its success."

    There are those who fear that the same fate could eventually befall Olmos, that he is simply spreading himself too thin. The actor's tendency to put himself on the line -- both on the set and on the street -- is motivated by a feeling that he has to maintain his personal code of honor in a corrupt world. Olmos locked horns with Director Menendez on the set of Stand and Deliver by insisting that the film be accurate to the Escalante story in every respect. Moreover, the echoes of Miami Vice keep recurring in his personal and professional life. Like Lieut. Castillo, Olmos has always wrestled with the ninja in himself, walking the thin line between dedication and self-denial, success and prideful penury. "You have to be able to say no to fame and fortune, before you receive it, to be able to say no again when you get older," he states in Castillo's stern monotone. "If not, you won't have the strength and the courage to do it. The intent must be pure."

    "Success, much more than failure, really bounces you around," observes Bower, who has known Olmos since 1981. "Eddie's still trying to find a way to balance his time and priorities, giving back to his family in ways that aren't frivolous." One of those ways is by spending as much time as possible with Kaija, 38, and his sons, now twelve and 15, at the island house they own off the coast of Florida and at their recently purchased ranch-style home in Encino, Calif. Though both boys have had small featured roles in their dad's movies, Olmos takes great pains to keep them out of the celebrity spotlight. "Everyone could always do better," Olmos says. "But I think I spend a good deal of time with my kids. I think I'm a good father."

    Kaija has found that being the wife of a Hispanic-American hero is not an easy role either. Besides managing the household, Kaija helps her husband screen scripts, answer fan mail and deal with a veritable flood of charity requests. "The past two years have been tough on me," she admits. "I get very lonely when he's out of town, and we never have enough time alone." Despite such gripes, Kaija remains "in love with the man, hook, line and sinker." Says she: "Husbands seem to be a disposable commodity in this day and age, but Eddie's like family to me. Like a brother. And you don't divorce your brother."

    When not acting or on a speaking tour, Olmos likes to unwind by cruising in his 26-ft. Wellcraft speedboat, listening to music -- from the Doors and Steely Dan to Luciano Pavarotti -- or just driving around in his Porsche. His favorite form of recreation, however, is going on long bike rides with his sons, who are both committed triathletes. Astride his extra-lightweight "Jan Le Grand" racer, which was specially made for him by a Miami bike shop, Olmos cycles with his boys as often as five times a week, when his schedule permits. The three usually limit their tours to 18 or 20 miles, though they have been known to pedal as far as 60 miles in a single day.

    Olmos paid homage to a different sort of endurance while speaking last month at a graduation ceremony at California State University, Los Angeles. During his speech, on the value of higher education, he asked the graduating students how many had parents who had never graduated from high school. When some 30% stood up, he congratulated them for "breaking the chain" and said he hopes to return next year to his alma mater to finish his own education. Olmos, who dropped out shortly before graduating, added that he is planning to re-enroll at Cal State with the intention of getting his B.A. and possibly going on for higher degrees.

    Whether or not Olmos makes good on his pledge is almost beside the point. Ever the optimist, he shoots high rather than low, striving for the stamina of the long-distance run. "Every morning, I try to say a thanks just for waking up," says Olmos, who neither drinks nor smokes. "I feel so happy, so blessed. This isn't an industry made for faces like mine, yet I'm a matinee idol. Not in the romantic sense, but in the sense that people are paying to see me." |

    Thanks in part to the million dollar-plus annual salary he receives for Vice, Olmos has also begun to realize the goal of developing his own films. After Gregorio Cortez, he teamed up with Bob Young to form YOY Productions. YOY has several movies planned, among them The Miracle, about a love relationship between a Central-American revolutionary and a priest, and Birds of Paradise, a psychological drama set in Papua New Guinea that Olmos describes as a "cross between African Queen and Raiders of the Lost Ark." Also in the planning stages: an adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote directed by Young and starring Olmos as the man of La Mancha. Says he: "I want to play Don Quixote so bad I can taste it."

    Yet Olmos is no impossible dreamer when it comes to Hollywood's new receptivity to Hispanics, which he regards as a direct result of market forces. "The industry is run on economics," Olmos observes. "It knows only one color: green. There's prejudice, sure. But economics makes it go away."

    Despite such caveats, Olmos is proud of the generally high quality of the current Hispanic-themed films and looks forward to the day when Hispanics will be contending for classic roles, playing a Hamlet or a Stanley Kowalski. "Images are changing," he says. "There are more opportunities for Hispanics now, even more than two years ago."

    Like any Hollywood animal, Olmos thinks on a grand scale, in broad, confident strokes. It is not inconceivable that he might play Hamlet or Kowalski. Or he might take on heroes like Coriolanus or Willy Loman. But consider this option: suppose he decided to develop a movie, Spielberg-style, about a Hispanic family in the suburbs, coping the American way. Instead of a tragic figure, he would be playing Eddie Average. (Then perhaps Eddie II and III). It would be Close Encounters of a fresh new kind, and the vast audience watching the melodrama might also start to recognize a little bit of Latino in themselves.