Arranging an interview with Esai Morales is a complicated proposition these days. As with most successful actors, there’s a retinue of publicists, managers, and assistants to contend with and a shooting schedule to work around.
Only in Mr. Morales’ case, the latter includes upwards of three concurrent television series as well as sundry film projects – which is to say that Mr. Morales is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s busiest actors. He’s already among its most bankable, particularly now that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. movie-going public, accounting for 15 percent of domestic box office receipts, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
His most visible current role is Lt. Tony Rodriguez on ABC’s long-running police drama NYPD Blue. The character debuted in April as a replacement for Lt. Arthur Fancy, played by James McDaniel.
Improbably, Mr. Morales credits his mother with helping him land the role.
“My mother was in town and had been taking really good care of me, like I hadn’t been taken care of in years,” he says. “Every morning I’d have these fresh juices and things, and I just felt so – how should I say – completely potent and able” when reading for the part.
In truth, Mr. Morales likely would have gotten the job regardless. “He just bowled us over with his first reading,” says NYPD Blue executive producer Mark Tinker, voicing what many in the industry have known for years – that Mr. Morales is one of the most consummately professional and personally driven actors working today.
As his work schedule attests, that reputation has gained notice among TV’s marquee producers and directors. Aside from NYPD Blue, Mr. Morales also has a recurring role on Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd. and tentatively plans to appear in American Family, Gregory Nava’s new dramatic series for PBS. Mr. Morales starred in the show’s pilot, which CBS rejected last year.
“If I go ahead and shoot a few episodes [of American Family], I will be simultaneously on public, private, and network television,” he says with the barest hint of irony.
To the extent Mr. Morales’ growing profile on the small screen is somewhat surprising, it’s because he long ago made a name for himself in films – and the TV industry’s vast slag heap of failed programs is littered with the names of accomplished movie actors.
A graduate of New York’s prestigious High School for the Performing Arts, Mr. Morales made his feature film debut alongside Sean Penn in 1983’s Bad Boys and went on to figure prominently in such movies as La Bamba, Mi Familia, Scorpion Spring, and Rapa Nui.
Though never an A-list star, he’s nonetheless distinguished himself as the ultimate actor’s actor, a craftsman obsessively in pursuit of the perfectly realized character.
His stage work has included the Los Angeles Theater Center’s Tamer of Horses, for which he won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. And, in fact, Mr. Morales has done more than his share of television work, guest-starring on such shows as Family Law, The Outer Limits, and Tales From the Crypt. He’s also taken star turns in a clutch of TV movies, including the NBC miniseries On the Wings of Eagles, Dying To Be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Peña Story, and, most recently, The Elian Gonzalez Story.
Two years ago, Mr. Morales shot a pilot (Sherman Oaks) for CBS that was by all accounts one of the best shows never picked up – Entertainment Weekly hailed it as a thinking person’s Melrose Place. At one point he was even offered a TV series of his own, a drama set in the 1950s called Salinas.
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