By Sarah Mosqueda
Not every actor can play a lawyer, cop and galactic senator, but Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits has slipped seamlessly into each role. “If you want a long career, it seems to me the more versatility you show as an actor, the better chance you have,” Smits said in a recent phone interview with Hispanic Network Magazine.
And a long and illustrious career he has.
Smits has made a name for himself in television, film and even on stage. He is a pioneer of the police procedural television series, among the first Hispanic actors to have a large role within the Star Wars franchise and enjoyed stints with New York’s Shakespeare Festival. In terms of versatility, Smits is practically a Swiss Army knife.
The award-winning performer credits part of his success to the casts and crews he has worked with.
“I would venture to say all of the shows that have been successful and satisfying in a professional way, whether it be “The West Wing” or “Sons of Anarchy,” have been because of the sense of ensemble,” Smits said. “A group of people getting together, there is a fellowship and camaraderie that is palpable on the screen.”
Smits has likened a cast of actors to the spokes of a wheel when it comes to storytelling, all working together to push a story forward. The importance of community was learned early and it is a theme that has continued throughout his life, both on and off screen.
The ‘Law’ Changed His Life
Born in Brooklyn in 1955 to Cornelis and Emilina Smits, Smits grew up in a working-class neighborhood after briefly living in Puerto Rico. He attended Brooklyn College where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980 and earned his MFA at Cornell University in 1982.
But the stage was where Smits felt most at home. “I was doing theater in New York and I was doing soap opera work to support myself while I was doing plays,” said Smits. “”L.A. Law” brought me to Los Angeles and changed my life in a lot of ways.”
In 1986, Smits landed his first regular role on Steven Bochco‘s NBC legal drama, “L.A. Law,” as Victor Sifuentes. While he earned a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 1990 for the role, Smits again credits the cast and crew as a whole.
“The good thing that I remember about that show is the fellowship, the ensemble was really tight,” Smits said. “We knew that the show was ground breaking in a lot of ways, and Steven Bochco had a lot to do with that.”
Smits said his heritage played a part in his role as Sifuentes, but it was important to Bochco that the character develop in a way that was authentic, rather than making him a caricature.
“On that particular show, with Steven, it was important to him to establish that character first and foremost as a good attorney,” Smits said. “The fact that he was Hispanic, Latinx, Chicano —those other things would come into play, but first and foremost was to establish him as a good attorney. That stands out to me.” Smits’ role on “L.A. Law” lead to another television role on ABC’s “NYPD Blue” as Detective Bobby Simone, and he was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama in 1995, as well as a Satellite Award in the same category in 1998.
He went on to play Congressman Matt Santos in NBC television drama, “The West Wing.” Smits said he recently stumbled across a West Wing marathon on TV and was struck by the storytelling.
“I don’t do this very often, but I started watching it and it happened to be the last couple episodes of the show,” Smits said. “I was so appreciative of the fact that I had that opportunity and that John Wells wanted to explore something in terms of a person of color in the political arena.”
Diversity in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Stories centered around people of color — and who gets to tell them — is something Hollywood has been grappling with in recent years, and Smits says he’s noticed a shift in the entertainment industry.
“The flourishing of the #MeToo movement and the BLM movement that happened and the pandemic, it left us assessing a lot of social norms and inequities in a different way, I think,” said Smits. “We felt vulnerable.”
He believes those movements created a change in the way the industry thinks about inclusion.
“It opened another door for more opportunities,” he said. “In regards to the Latinx community, we’ve had big jumps because of that, but I still feel that there is a disparity in regards to what our population numbers are in this country.”
Smits has always worked to create more equity within the industry and is proud to bring representation to the big and small screen.
In 2002, he played Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” one of the first Latinx actors to enter the galaxy far, far away. It is a role he reprised for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” in 2005, “Rogue One” in 2016, and most recently in 2022 for “Obi-Wan Kenobi.“ Smits said the possibility of bringing diversity to the Star Wars franchise influenced his decision to take the role.
“It definitely was in the mix in terms of making the decision to do it, not only on my part but on George’s [Lucas’] part when we had our initial conversations,” Smits recalls.
Today’s Star Wars franchise is notably more diverse than when Smits first became involved.
“That has changed with this franchise a lot,” he said. “In a good way.”
Moving the Needle Forward
Smits himself has also worked to create more equity in the industry. In 1997, he was involved in the founding of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts — an organization dedicated to the advancement of Latinos in the media, telecommunications and entertainment industries.
“We are making a lot of progress, but of course I want our community to be able to reach its full potential,” Smits said. “Those kinds of steps and the progress that we have made has always been to me, incremental.”
Smits said in each decade, you can name five or six Latinos who’ve made an impact, but the ones he credits with doing the most to move the needle is Latin women.
“When I look to my sisters in the Latinx community, there is no greater example in our community,” Smits said. “J.Lo, Eva Longoria, Sofia Vergara…I can give you 10 names of woman that are really making a wonderful path.”
Smits said he also applauds their leadership behind the scenes.
“They are not content with just being in front of the camera, but they have taken on this other aspect of creating content,” Smits said. “That is a really an important notch in terms of taking our community to the next level.”
Smits says he hopes to continue his work pushing for representation.
In his most recent role, Smits has gone home again, so to speak. He’s returned to a police drama role, starring as Chief John Suarez in his new CBS series “East New York,” which is set in his hometown of Brooklyn. William Finkelstein, who served as an executive producer on “NYPD Blue” in the later seasons, is co-creator of” East New York.”
“I am excited about continuing with them,” Smits said.
He is even more excited about seeing what kind of impact his next character will have, and continuing his long career.
“I had the good fortune and the blessing to be lucky in terms of the roles I have gotten to do and hopefully, I have been able to expand that platform.”