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Jimmy Smits: 1955—: Actor

Almost Bombed Out Of Hit Show

Smits finished Brooklyn College in 1980, and went on to earn a master's degree in theater arts from Cornell University two years later. Returning to New York City, Smits began auditioning for stage roles, and drove a cab for two months at one point to make ends meet. He quickly found work in off-Broadway, and moved on to some impressive New York Shakespeare Festival productions. In 1984 he was given his first big break—but it was a mixed blessing: he appeared in the pilot episode of Miami Vice as partner to Don Johnson's narcotics detective character, but died within the first 15 minutes. With a New York transplant as the new cop on the team, the show went on to enjoy tremendous success in the mid-1980s.

At a Glance . . .

Born on July 9, 1955, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Cornelis (a plant manager) and Emelina Smits; married, 1981 (divorced, 1987); children: Taina, Joaquin. Education: Brooklyn College, BA, 1980; Cornell University, MA, 1982.

Career: Actor, 1982–.

Memberships: National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, co-founder, 1997.

Awards: Imagen award, Hispanic Media Image Task Force, 1987; National Hispanic Bar of Mexico honor, 1988; Emmy award for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1990; Bravo award, National Council of La Raza, for outstanding television series actor in a crossover role, 1996; Golden Globe Award, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1996.

Smits's first feature-film role was a solid one, although again it presented a double-edged sword for the Latino actor: he appeared as a Chicago drug kingpin in the 1986 Gregory Hines-Billy Crystal comedy Running Scared. That same year, he was invited to give a personal audition for a new drama series being cast by the creators of Hill Street Blues. Television producer Steven Bochco was looking for a new, unknown actor to take the role of Victor Sifuentes in L.A. Law, a drama centered on the cases and characters at a fictional Los Angeles law firm. The Sifuentes character was written as a public-defender attorney, ardent about social justice issues, but during the pilot episode is lured by the prospect of a much posher job in private practice. Yet the nervous Smits botched his New York tryout and, determined to win the plum role, went to Los Angeles to take part in simultaneous auditions for it. His second try impressed Bochco and the other executives, and he won the role.

L.A. Law quickly became a hit following its debut in September of 1986, with Smits and fellow cast members Susan Dey, Corbin Bernsen, and Harry Hamlin garnering rave reviews. Smits also attracted a sizeable fan base as one of the show's resident well-dressed, handsome attorneys. "Smits may be the most appealing Latin leading man since Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas were the hunks del dia," wrote Grant in People at the time. Grant remarked that television roles for Latinos had, in recent memory, portrayed them as criminals, or at the very least depicted them living in an impoverished urban setting; he deemed both the fictional Sifuentes and the actor playing him "the wave of the future." Smits agreed with Grant's assessment. "We're alike in that Victor has gone to college and he's involved with a profession he's very good at. Certainly that's not something that's being explored a lot on television."

Smits won his first Emmy award, for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, in 1990. By 1992, with his five-year L.A. Law contract about the expire, the actor chose not to renew it in order to pursue a career in film. He had made the occasional appearance, when his television schedule permitted, in a few Hollywood features, but his first post-L.A. Law role came opposite Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck in Old Gringo. Peck played real-life American journalist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished in Mexico during its 1913 revolution. The script posits that he joined a unit of Pancho Villa's army. Smits portrayed the unit's commander, who descends into madness. The film did poorly at the box office, as did Smits's next project, a medical thriller called Vital Signs. In 1991, he took a stab at comedy and earned solid reviews for Switch alongside Ellen Barkin.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyJimmy Smits: 1955—: Actor Biography - Almost Bombed Out Of Hit Show, Returned To Television Stardom, Worked To Further Latino Arts