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Edward James Olmos: 1947—: Actor

Grew Up In The Barrio

Olmos was born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles to Pedro and Eleanor (Huizar) Olmos. Olmos credited his parents, who divorced in 1955, for being his lifelong inspiration. He told Instyle's Kathryn Hart, "My mother is the reason I know God is a woman. She's worked for 20 years—from age 54 to 74—at County General Hospital in Los Angeles. She has worked from 11 o'clock at night to 7 in the morning in the AIDS ward, where she's held the hands of many, many people as they died. It's a gift."

Although diverse in culture and language, the East Los Angeles neighborhood in which Olmos grew up shared the common denominator of poverty. "Inside this world, everyone was the same," he told Guy D. Garcia of Time. "We were all poor. And the only way to survive it was through a constant struggle of trying to be better today than you were yesterday." As a youngster, Olmos stayed out of trouble and out of the gangs that dominated much of life in the barrio. Instead of running with a gang, Olmos played baseball, which taught him discipline, patience, and determination—all traits that helped propel him out of the barrio. He excelled at the sport, winning the Golden State batting championship at the age of 14.

At the age of 15, Olmos's hopes of a career in baseball turned into dreams of singing and dancing, primarily because he believed that it held out more promise for getting him out of poverty. Despite lacking an over-abundance of natural talent, Olmos committed himself to learning to play the piano and sing. By the time he graduated from high school, he had formed the band Pacific Ocean, which played frequently at clubs along Sunset Strip. It was during a Pacific Ocean gig that Olmos meet his first wife, Kaija Keel, daughter of actor Howard Keel. The two hit it off and married in 1971; by the time he was 25 years old, Olmos was married with two children. The couple stayed together until their sons were grown, divorcing in 1994.

At a Glance . . .

Born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles; married Kaija Keel, 1971; divorced, 1994; children: two sons, Mico and Bodie (with Keel); married Lorraine Bracco, 1994; divorced, 2002. Education: studied at East Los Angeles City College.

Career: lead vocalist of Pacific Ocean, 1960s; owner of a furniture-moving business, 1970s; starred as El Pachuco in theatre production of Zoot Suit, 1978; Blade Runner, 1982;The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1983; Stand and Deliver, 1988; American Me, 1992; A Million to Juan, 1994; My Family/Mi Familia, 1995;; Selena, 1997; The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, 1997; The Road to El Dorado, 2000; In the Time of the Butterflies, 2001; tv series: American Family, 2002-.

Membership: Natl Goodwill Ambassador, UNICEF; Recruiting New Teachers; UCLA Mentoring Program; the Natl Council on Adoption; spokesperson: Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, AIDS Awareness Foundation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Destructive Decisions, Parkinson's Disease Foundation, and Alzheimer's Foundation.

Awards: Best Actor, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, for Zoot Suit, 1978; Theatre World Award, for Zoot Suit,1979; Antoinette Perry Award, for Zoot Suit, 1979; Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for Miami Vice, 1985; Golden Globe Award, for The Burning Season, 1994.

Despite his longhaired rocker appearance, Olmos maintained his industrious lifestyle. He attended East Los Angeles City College during the day and often studied at the clubs at night, pulling out his books during breaks between sets. At first he pursued psychology and criminology, until Olmos signed up for a drama course to help him with his stage presence as a singer. Much to his surprise, he discovered that he enjoyed acting, and soon he had fallen in love with the idea of becoming an actor. Making enough money as an actor to provide for his family proved to be challenging initially. Undeterred, after Pacific Ocean broke up, Olmos bought the band's oversized van and started a business delivering antique furniture to supplement his income.

Hauling furniture during the day, Olmos spent his nights working in experimental theater. Eventually he began landing bit parts in television shows. Almost always playing a tough, bad-guy role, Olmos was awarded small parts in episodes of such television series as Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, ChiPs, Medical Center, Magnum P.I., and Police Woman. He also had minor roles in several films, including Alambrista and Aloha, Bobby and Rose. Looking back, Olmos laughed at his acting abilities early in his career. As he told Elaine Dutka of Time, "I was the only person Jack Lord [of Hawaii Five-O] shot in the back, ever.… That's how bad I was."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerEdward James Olmos: 1947—: Actor Biography - Grew Up In The Barrio, Zoot Suit, Stand And Deliver, From American Me To American Family