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Edward James Olmos: 1947—: Actor

Zoot Suit

Olmos's first major break came on the theatrical stage in 1978 when he landed a leading role of the Los Angeles production of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit. The play, a musical drama, is a fictionalized account of the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which a group of young Hispanic men are falsely convicted of murder following what became known as the 1942 Los Angeles zoot suit riots. Olmos tried out for the part of "El Pachuco," the leader of the gang and the epitome of the angry, macho Hispanic man who acts as the narrator and conscience of the story. At the audition, Olmos told Garcia, "I spoke in caló, street jive from the streets of East L.A.—a mix of Spanish, English, and Gypsy. 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." Awarded the role, Olmos played the part to perfection and received rave reviews for his performance.

Zoot Suit was only scheduled for a ten-week run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; however, after positive reviews, the production ran eight more weeks before relocating to the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, where it ran for the next nine months. The production then moved to Broadway's Winter Garden theater, where it was not as well received and subsequently closed after only seven weeks. For his performance, he earned a Los Angeles Critics Circle Award, and his Broadway appearance garnered him the Theatre World Award for most outstanding new performer. He was also nominated for an Antoinette Perry Award. In 1982 Zoot Suit was released as a feature film, with Olmos retaining the role of El Pachuco. Despite the production's short run in New York City and a lukewarm reception of the film version, Olmos had clearly made his mark.

Following the success of Zoot Suit, Olmos no longer had to knock on doors for bit parts. During the early 1980s he accepted supporting roles in the movies Wolfen (1981) and Blade Runner (1982). However, early in his career as a known and sought-after actor, Olmos decided to accept only projects that held meaning for him. For this reason, he turned down director Brian De Palma's offer to cast him in his movie Scarface, which told the story of a Cuban immigrant who is drawn into the violent world of drug-dealing. He also refused parts in Red Dawn and Firestarter and, although he made numerous appearances on the show, Olmos passed up an opportunity to join the permanent cast of the popular television drama Hill Street Blues because the required five-year contract was exclusive, thus denying him the ability to take on other, more meaningful, projects during that time.

Olmos's next major project was the 1982 Public Broadcasting Company's (PBS) American Playhouse production of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, in which Olmos played the title role. The film was based on the true tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican folk hero who was traditionally held to be a fierce bandito. However, after researching the film, Olmos discovered that Cortez was, in fact, not an outlaw at all, but a poor rancher and honest family man. Only through misinterpretation and a misunderstanding between cultures was Cortez wrongly accused of murder in 1901 and pursued across Texas by a 600-man posse. After its run on television, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was slated for the big screen; however, no major studios could be persuaded to release it, perhaps in part because Olmos spoke Spanish throughout the film with no subtitles. Determined that the story of Cortez was too important to let fade, Olmos began a five-year personal crusade to distribute the film across the country.

In 1984 Olmos joined the cast of television series Miami Vice as Lieutenant Martin Castillo. The show, which centered on the careers of two undercover vice-squad cops, garnered a significant viewing audience even though the majority of critics were less than enthusiastic. Olmos, for his part, received commendable reviews, and although he did little promoting of the show and voiced concerns that it propagated stereotypes, he earned him an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

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