News Column

Mr. Prime Time

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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.

“I didn’t do it, and I felt terrible,” he now says of the latter series. “I realized that you don’t get too many chances out there. I really just want to come out swinging, meaning I want a character that’s contemporary and that has something to say about now. I wanted something with more – I hate this word because it’s often used and abused – more edge.”

Mr. Morales’ newfound good fortune in episodic TV is partly a function of coincidence. He shot the pilot for American Family more than a year ago – the show was in limbo for several months after CBS passed on it, finally ending up on PBS – and began work on Resurrection Blvd. shortly thereafter.

But then there’s Mr. Morales himself, his easygoing offscreen manner, which couldn’t be more different from the intense characters he often portrays, offering its own testament to his talents in front of the camera.

“There aren’t all that many people in Esai’s position,” says Dennis Leoni, executive producer of Resurrection Blvd. “He has experience, he’s extremely talented, and he’s at the right age – not too young and not too old. I’m very happy for him.”

Of course, his role on NYPD Blue is Mr. Morales’ top priority at the moment. He says he was drawn to the character by the writing, one of the show’s strong suits throughout its eight-year run. Lt. Tony Rodriguez is the sort of character with edge that Mr. Morales had been looking for – an everyman/hero who, like the actor himself, lives for his job.

“It’s wonderful to have a person who is well-rounded. Even though we haven’t seen a lot of the many facets of his personality, we see he gets his work done and he’s to be respected,” he muses.

Mr. Morales’ NYPD Blue character is all the more remarkable given the dearth of high-caliber television roles available to Hispanics, says Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The nonprofit group, which he founded with Mr. Morales and the actors Jimmy Smits and Sonia Braga in 1997, is dedicated to promoting Hispanics in the media and entertainment industries.

“Lt. Tony Rodriguez is a clearly defined, unambiguous Latino. He speaks without an accent, is a role model in the image category, and is a leader in the precinct. It’s a complicated portrayal coupled with elements of Latino empowerment,” says Mr. Sanchez, who met Mr. Morales when the two worked together on Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign.

“We have a very hard time convincing network executives as to what they gain in creating roles like Esai’s,” he says.

Mr. Morales agrees that his NYPD Blue character, in all his complexity and rough-hewn authenticity, is a milestone of sorts.

“This man is not about being Latino. The most Latino thing about him is his name,” he says. “I hope it’s a signal of things changing. I think it’s time that America realizes who it is in all its variety and who its family members are, and that we’re not just caricatures or stereotypes.”

His commitment to realistic television portrayals of Hispanics has earned Mr. Morales plaudits both inside and outside the industry. During a Los Angeles award ceremony in June, he was recognized by Crown Royal for his leadership as a role model and his contributions to the Hispanic community. Paul Rodriguez, Ruben Blades, Ms. Braga, and Mr. Smits also were honored at the event.

He also received a Horizon Award at a June Congressional Award Foundation dinner in Washington, D.C., for his philanthropic efforts in co-founding the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. And he was President Bush’s honored guest at the White House’s first-ever Cinco de Mayo reception.

Still, mindful as he is of the importance of creating opportunities for up-and-coming Hispanic actors and generous as he is with his time on behalf of numerous charities and social causes, Mr. Morales admits to occasional bouts of activism fatigue.

“Frankly, I get Latinoed out. I get tired,” he says. “I don’t get paid to be the spokesperson for Latinos. But I sure get asked to go here and there and speak to schools. I say, ‘Look, I’d love to do it for the kids, but I think I’d do better for the kids by doing my job well.’ If I do my job well and represent a character that doesn’t rest on his ethnicity, doesn’t let that limit him or motivate him, doesn’t let his ethnicity define him, then I think I will be doing something much better for the kids than talking to them once or twice.”

Mr. Morales also is keeping his hand in movie work. He’s completed work on the Dimension film Paid in Full, which will be released later this year, and is slated to appear in the independent feature How to Go Out on a Date in Queens.

As for those who think he’ll rest on his recent success, he has a message: You haven’t seen anything yet.

“I’m too old to let it get to my head. People ask me, ‘Are you excited about doing NYPD Blue?’ Yeah, I’m excited, but I’m cop excited. You ever see a cop excited? It’s a tempered excitement that says, ‘Let’s get to work.’ The reality is that there’s nothing that represents you or your family or your people like the quality of your work,” he says.

“I make no pretenses. I’ve got a big job ahead of me. I just want to keep getting better. If you think you’re really good, then eventually you kind of get flat and hollow. You can’t take your work for granted; you’ve got to be focused and energized. You’ve got to stay on top of your game.”

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