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Luis Guzmán: Gang Member No. 22 To Sitcom Dad


May 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


The face that's graced 1,000 thugs: Luis Guzmán in "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd."

Photo: Suzanne Hanover/New Line Cinema


LOS ANGELES - I' VE been in many different situations on film," said Luis Guzmán, nursing a saltless margarita in the lounge of an upscale hotel here. "But I've always had this comic edge to myself."

Dressed in jeans and a leather jacket over a T-shirt adorned with the image of one of his heroes, and countrymen, the Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente, Mr. Guzmán, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City with his family as an infant, was in town to attend casting sessions for "Luis." In this Fox sitcom pilot set in Spanish Harlem he stars as a doughnut-shop owner who is frequently at odds with his ex-wife and grown daughter.

At first glance, it might seem odd that a veteran character actor like Mr. Guzmán – whose résumé includes two decades of lowlife criminals and an occasional jaded cop, and whose dark cascade of hair, pocked complexion, deep-set eyes and preternaturally furrowed brow render his face menacing and unforgettable – may soon have his own sitcom. But is it really any more unlikely than the fact that the quintessential Nuyorican, who describes himself as "the original papi chulo" – approximate translation: "sexy daddy" – now lives with his wife and five kids on a 128-acre farm in Vermont?

Yes, he has played drug dealers, rapists and killers, but most of those were years ago, in forgotten movies and long-since-canceled series. These days, Mr. Guzmán, 46, is more likely to turn up in Oscar-winning dramas like "Traffic," top-shelf studio comedies like the Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson hit "Anger Management" and class-act indies like the newly released "Confidence," with Edward Burns and Dustin Hoffman. Besides, if Hilary Swank could ascend from "The Next Karate Kid" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" to a best actress Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry," then surely Mr. Guzmán can shake off characters with names like Gypsy Cabbie, First Goon and Gang Member No. 22 to headline a network sitcom. And having done three films apiece with the directors Sidney Lumet, Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson, two with Brian De Palma and one-shots with Robert Wise, Anthony Minghella and Ridley Scott doesn't hurt a guy's reputation.

With an ethnic lead whose humor is rooted not in gags and shtick but in suppressed hostility, "Luis," if it makes the fall schedule, could become must-TiVo TV for fans of "The Bernie Mac Show," "George Lopez" and "My Wife and Kids," starring Damon Wayans. The difference is that unlike Mr. Mac, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Wayans, who got their starts as standup comedians, Mr. Guzmán came to acting by way of social work.

His success seems all the more unlikely given that for nearly a decade after he began acting, he regarded it as a well-paid hobby. While employed as a community activist and youth counselor at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, he lent his natural flair for performing to the occasional street theater production among friends like the poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. He made his film debut in 1977, with a small role in the screen adaptation of Mr. Piñero's Off Broadway hit "Short Eyes."

"I was supposed to play one of the leads," he said. "But my roommate didn't give me the message, so I never went to the audition. Instead, I ended up being a day player."

A few years later, while walking down the street, he bumped into Mr. Piñero, who was then writing for the television series "Miami Vice." He gave Mr. Guzmán a telephone number and encouraged him to call for an audition.

After conjuring a sufficiently chilling expression in response to the casting director's request – "Kill me with your eyes" – Mr. Guzmán landed the part of a Colombian drug kingpin.

Early on, Mr. Guzmán's ability to exude unnerving intensity even in repose led to steady work playing scoundrels of every stripe. Yet even when cast as a seemingly unredeemable villain, he always managed to invest his characters with humanity, while walking a knife edge between malevolence and mirth.

Not surprisingly, as filmmakers recognized an innate likability and knack for comedy beneath the intimidating exterior, his roles grew increasingly varied: a sarcastic New York detective in the police corruption drama "Q&A"; Al Pacino's affably traitorous henchman in "Carlito's Way"; a nightclub owner with dreams of adult film stardom in "Boogie Nights"; a wisecracking narcotics cop partnered with Don Cheadle in "Traffic."

Mr. Guzmán has gained increasing recognition in recent years, thanks largely to Mr. Anderson, who wrote roles for him in "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love," and Mr. Soderbergh, who cast him in "Out of Sight," "The Limey" and "Traffic." Suddenly in greater demand than at any point in his career, he appeared in six movies last year, including "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Welcome to Collinwood" and "Pluto Nash"; in addition to "Anger Management" and "Confidence," he will be seen in two more this year: "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd," which opens June 13; and "Runaway Jury," based on a John Grisham novel, which is scheduled for the fall.

As notable as the volume of films he has made of late is the number of comedies. Mr. Guzmán's progression from the scummy to the funny side of the street is due in part to his desire to make some movies that his children could watch. But the fact is, his own personality is much closer to the cutup than it is to the criminal.

"In Spanish we call it chaletán," he said. "Chaletán is a funny guy, and growing up, that's who I was. I was always snapping on people, and stuff like that, but it was nothing mean-spirited. I used to get girls by making them laugh. `Oh, you're funny!' `Oh, yeah? You want to hang with me, babe?' "

Which is not to suggest that Mr. Guzmán has not endured his share of challenges and hardships. He was raised in an environment rife with drugs and crime, and it was not the acclaim he began earning for his performances, but rather a devastating personal tragedy, that spurred him to quit social work. In 1991, his first child, a son, died in delivery. On his first day back at work after a three-month leave, he recalled, "a 17-year-old girl came in with a newborn baby, and she was eating Yodels and drinking a Coke at like 9 o'clock in the morning. It broke my heart, because my wife took such good care of herself during her pregnancy, and I took such good care of her. And to lose a healthy baby the way we did, life was not fair. At that point I said, `I can't do this any more,' and I decided to become a full-fledged, full-time actor."

Although he took acting classes after he began working professionally ("I was like a dull knife – I had the tool, I just needed to sharpen it"), he said that technique is not the source of his performances. "My life is my reference. I know what it feels like to laugh, I know what it feels like to cry, I know what it feels like to feel pain, I know what it feels like to bury somebody, I know what it feels like to be loved, I know what it feels like to not be loved, I know what it feels like to be hungry and have only a dollar in your pocket. Those are real things; you can't fake that stuff. And that's what I appreciate about where I come from, because I'm a very humble dude."

Humility tends to be scarce in Hollywood, which may explain why Mr. Guzmán is so popular among his peers, why he does not worry about the fate of his series, but rather describes it as "my reward for good work," and why, unlike some performers who bristle at the term, he has no problem being called a character actor.

"I've been a character all my life," he said. "When I was a kid I used to get into trouble for being a character. I get paid for it now, but back then I got paid when I got home, you know what I'm saying?" 

Juan Morales writes about entertainment from Los Angeles.

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