During the television brown out of the 1980s and 1990s when the few Latino characters that existed were drug dealers and maids, a beacon of hope existed in the form of Jimmy Smits. The actor consistently defied Latino stereotypes of whom and what Latinos were on the big and small screen. Smits broke a mold and simultaneously helped create a new norm in entertainment that pushed open the door for Latino actors, established and aspiring, everywhere.
Born in July 1955, Smits is the eldest of three children born to a Puerto Rican mother and Surinamese father. Smits split his time between his hometown of Brooklyn and his mother’s native island as a child and became anchored to his Latin roots. As the child of working-class parents, he took the road less traveled to pursue his passion for acting. He studied the craft at Brooklyn College where he graduated with a bachelor’s in 1980 and continued his training at Cornell University where he received a master’s in fine arts in 1982.
Local theater and Off-Broadway plays were Smits’ training ground but his big break occurred in the mid-80s when he took on the part of good-guy lawyer Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law. The role would launch him as a celebrity and garner him an Emmy award. He would go on to star or appear in seven different television series and a dozen films over the next three decades. His eclectic leading man roles have found him playing straitlaced cop Bobby Simone on NYPD Blue, a Congressman/President-elect Matt Santos on The West Wing and villain Miguel Prado on Showtime’s Dexter, which garnered him his seventh Emmy nomination. Smits even appeared in the Star Wars prequels, playing none other than Princess Lea’s adoptive father Senator Bail Organa.
There is no slowing down for this television icon, fans can find him on the small screen this fall in Sons of Anarchy as the gang lothario Nero Padilla. Such extreme shape shifting is part of what he loves about the work.
“What’s always been important for me, more than anything, is try to keep showing versatility and keep doing things that are a little bit different to challenge myself as an artist and to keep mixing it up for the audience as well,”
he remarked to My Generation TV. Smits’ dedication to the Latino community is ever present in his professional and personal life.
“Our young people should be able to see as many positive images so they can aspire to better themselves,”
Smits further commented to My Generation TV. Personally he has protested the US Navy’s occupation of Vieques, helped found the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and is co-owner of nightclub and music venue, The Conga Room in Los Angeles.
While he’s played the occasional kingpin and fugitive Smits is largely heralded for his ability to depict complex, human and moral characters. For regularly portraying positive Latino characters when few existed and breaking the mold, Smits is a true don.
Image credit- Todd France/Corbis