Jimmy Smits warns that he’s going to cry.
He’s discussing his virtual Hollywood Walk of Fame honor, in which his name will be embedded on a star at 11:30 a.m. on June 2. It’s not just receiving the accolade that means so much to him, it’s the placement — Smits will be close to Gregory Peck, his co-star in the 1989 film “Old Gringo.”
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“That’s in the stars — literally. It’s a beautiful, serendipitous thing that happened,” Smits says. “He had such an influence on me and his friendship after that has played such an important part in my life. It was kind of an unknowing mentorship. And it put me on the right path.”
It’s a path he continued on for 30 years, and one that included a wide range of roles in some of the most acclaimed television shows of all time. In fact, it’s hard to think of another actor who has been such an integral part of so many beloved ensembles — from his Emmy Award-winning turn on “L.A. Law,” which made him only the third Latino to win in the category, to his work on “NYPD Blue” (for which he became the only Latino ever nominated in the lead drama actor Emmy category), “The West Wing,” “Dexter” and “24.” And when it comes to the big screen, you’ll find people as passionate about his work in the “Star Wars” universe as Sen. Bail Organa (aka Leia’s adopted father) as they are about films such as the 1995 indie “Mi Familia” (“My Family”), about three generations of a family of Mexican immigrants.
That film is the one cited by “In the Heights” scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, who finds himself working alongside Smits in the upcoming “In the Heights” in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.
“I remember seeing it on a school trip with other Latino kids. We all went to see it when it came out,” Miranda recalls. “You know, that’s Bobby Simone from ‘NYPD Blue’ and Leia’s dad! It’s crazy he’s in our movie.”
It actually seems more like destiny — something Smits will say again and again about events in his career — that Smits wound up with the role. He plays Kevin Rosario, the loving (if overprotective) father to Nina (Leslie Grace), a young woman back from her first year of college at Stanford. Kevin is also an example of the American Dream to his fellow residents of Washington Heights, as he’s a successful businessman, running a taxi service. Still, he dreams of a better life for his daughter.
It’s a role Smits can more than relate to. He remembers when he told his parents he wanted to be an actor and how nervous that made them. “They came to this country wanting their children to do better, it’s what every immigrant family hopes for,” says Smits. “I found this thing they didn’t understand. They were like, ‘We understand you’re doing these plays where everyone talks funny, but what’s next?’”
Smits’ history with “In the Heights” goes all the way back to when the show was being produced Off Broadway and a friend recommended he check it out. The actor can perfectly recall seeing that first production: “My wife and I turned to each other and were like, ‘These kids have got it. They’re something powerful and current.’”
He met the cast and let Miranda know that if they needed anything, he was there for them. And Miranda took him up on it, asking him to lend his voice to their national commercial when the show transferred to Broadway.
“It meant the world to us,” Miranda raves. “In some ways that commercial was a sneak preview of what ‘In the Heights’ the movie would be like, even though that wouldn’t happen for another 15 years.”
Smits jokes that all he asked in return was “some more tickets.” He got his wish: when the show hit Broadway, Smits was doing “God of Carnage” at the same time and because they had different nights off, he was able to return to see “In the Heights” “many, many, many times.”
Smits says he “campaigned” for the role of Kevin, even prior to this iteration of the film, when a different director was attached. And when “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu took the helm, he campaigned even harder.
But Chu remembers it differently. “I felt like we were chasing Jimmy the whole time,” says Chu. “He is truth. He is a rock that has been present in this business and on the big screen and on the small screen for years, and he never backed down and he never strived for less than excellence. I think he is a beacon of what we all want in representation. So, to have someone as graceful and elegant and powerful as him playing the father of Nina, and to have him say to his daughter: ‘This is the moment that you see a future that I can’t,’ I think means so much to the next generation that wants to follow in his footsteps.”
Representation and community are clearly important to Smits — it touches him that to this day that people will come up and tell him one of the reasons they became a lawyer was after watching him on “L.A. Law.” In 1997, he was one of the co-founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which continues to operate, and Smits gets to see up close how it’s changed lives.
“The last show I worked on, there was a young woman in the writers’ room who said, ‘I was one of the scholarship recipients. You helped me get through,’” he says.
For Smits, it all comes back to those lessons he learned from Peck years ago — acting isn’t just about what you see in the scene. “It’s also about being a good citizen and living your life where you give so much and get so much in return.”
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce ceremony to honor actor Jimmy Smits will take place June 2, 11:30 a.m. and can be streamed at www.walkoffame.com and on Facebook.
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