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Hector Elizondo: Role Player

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 1999


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Hector Elizondo is talking about the American need to categorize people. It annoys him – especially when it comes to ethnic background.

"I hate to be called a Latin actor," he says. "I can't stand that."

Elizondo is at lunch, obsessing over how long it has been since he last washed his hands. He has brought with him a tiny black film container, marked on the top with the letter "L" for "lunch." It contains his stash: Omega 3. Vitamin C. Vitamin E. A multi-B vitamin. An enzyme. And, of course, gingko biloba, which he hawks on television.

Elizondo has his little quirks. And he has his opinions. Strong ones.

"It's a box," he says, of the ethnic categories always talked about in Hollywood. "A box. Why don't you call Al Pacino an Italian actor? Why don't you call Arnold Schwarzenegger the Austrian actor? What's the big deal? I don't see what my ancestry has to do with it. I think by putting me in that box, by categorizing me, you're taking away my options and my opportunity."

Elizondo says he has no box. Almost never has. In his current film, "Runaway Bride," which opens here today, he plays Richard Gere's best friend, a guy named Fisher, a character with no discernible ethnic background. He has a long-running role as Dr. Phillip Watters, a surgeon and hospital administrator on the television drama "Chicago Hope," for which he has won an Emmy. He has played a Portuguese garbage collector, and a Rodeo Drive hotel manager of generic American background. He has done voice-overs in Japan. He has played a Russian – a postal supervisor in the film "Dear God." He has even played God – on the stage, in "Steambath," and won an Obie for his efforts.

Elizondo has never played a Latino character that falls into one of the stereotypical subgroups – gang member, gardener, nanny – that prompted Latino leaders to lambaste television executives earlier this week. He feels lucky that his resume is long, and that he has been able to decline roles he found demeaning.

For the record, Elizondo's father was Basque, born while his parents were on a boat, sailing from Spain to Argentina. His mother was Puerto Rican, daughter of a land-owning family. He was born and raised in New York. And his looks?

"I look like Lenin," he says. It is clear that he loves this comparison. He considers his Bolshevik face a key to his multifaceted career.

"Let's start with that," he says. "It's the way I look. The way I sound. The fact that I'm lucky enough to be trained in the theater, so I come with other credentials. I have this neutral-looking puss.

"But most of it," he continues, "comes from refusing to look at myself as a victim. I've had certain choices, certain chances."

He turned down the lead role in "Chico and the Man," because the character was a cliche. He once refused a role in the film "Scarface." "I didn't want to be associated with Latinos when the association is violence," he says. "I didn't know that in my culture. The violence I experienced was from the non-Latinos."

Elizondo was raised in a close-knit family, who in turn helped raise his son, Rodd, when Elizondo became a single father at age 20. He was married, briefly, because "it was the right thing to do." They divorced after a year. Elizondo kept the baby because his life was more stable than his ex-wife's. He was just feeling his way into the acting world then, spending most of his time working in a neon light factory, driving a truck, going to City College at night. He still had fantasies about playing for the Yankees.

Instead, he started out as a dancer and conga drum player, then made his way into the New York theater. His big break came in 1970, when he won the Obie for his part in "Steambath." Over the next 20 years, he played dozens of parts on television, on the stage, and in movies. Then came his memorable role in "Pretty Woman," the first Garry Marshall film pairing Julia Roberts with Gere.

Elizondo is always in Garry Marshall movies, ever since he made an errant pass on Marshall's home basketball court, smacking his host in the face with the ball. Marshall wasn't happy about the pass, but he was pleased to get to know Elizondo, who came over to apologize. Subsequently, Marshall cast him in "Young Doctors in Love." Now, the director refers to Elizondo as his "good-luck charm" and Elizondo juggles his schedule so he can appear in any Marshall film, no matter the part.

"Runaway Bride" is a Marshall movie, a film that reunites Roberts and Gere – and Elizondo – nine years after the release of the phenomenally popular "Pretty Woman." In that film, Elizondo stole scenes with his portrayal of Bernard, the sympathetic hotel manager who helps Roberts's hooker obtain a dress, and learn table manners, on snooty Rodeo Drive.

In "Runaway Bride," Elizondo has the best line – a joke about Roberts and a Federal Express truck that is not even remotely funny without the context – but he is on screen for barely more than a few minutes. He didn't mind.

"It was old home week," Elizondo says. "We just took up where we left off."

And he was amazed by Roberts, who was in the early stages of her rise to movie stardom when they last were on the set together, nearly a decade ago.

"She was young," Elizondo says of Roberts then. "She really knows how to handle herself now. She's a terrific pro."

After their first movie together, Elizondo didn't know what to think. Actually, he suspected a stinker. A bomb. A flop. So when "Pretty Woman" opened, he sneaked out to the desert and went camping. Stayed away for five days.

"I loved Garry so much, I couldn't bear to watch," he says. "I made sure I wasn't around. I figured it'll open, it'll close, I'll come back, it'll be all over."

He came back to an answering machine full of messages, all congratulations. The first was from Marshall.

"He says, "Hector, Hector, hello. . . . I think you'd better take a walk over to Westwood, to the theater," Elizondo says, mimicking his friend's deep voice.

The film was a huge hit, and it still makes Elizondo chuckle to think of it.

"I was discovered again," he says. He was 53 years old at the time.

It was "Chicago Hope," though, that truly made him recognizable. He has been nominated for an Emmy five times for his performance in the show. And when the producers showed the door to half the cast – including Emmy-winning Christine Lahti – at the end of last season, Elizondo was still standing. He and Adam Arkin are the only original cast members remaining.

"It was time, they thought," Elizondo says of the cast changes, "but I think they threw the baby out with the bath water. I would have kept Christine. You don't get actors like that. She had a really strong work ethic, and did excellent work."

He's not sure, though, how much longer he wants to do the show either. Or anything else. He's 62 now. Those gingko commercials? Yes, he uses the product, but choosing to do the ads also has to do with socking away a little money, preparing for the day when he decides to step away, limit his acting to the theater.

"They were looking for a middle-aged guy who's in shape, who people know," he says of the ads. "If I were a fat doctor [on television], I don't think they'd want me."

So now he's the gingko guy. And Dr. Watters. And Bernard the hotel manager. And that actor who looks like Lenin.

"Hey," he says, "I'm a New Yorker. We can't be classified."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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