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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actors > Feature Interviews A to E > Hector Elizondo

 

Hector Elizondo 

Mr. Elizondo and the Obsessive-Compulsive Detective 

by Debbie Wagner

 
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 7, 2008.

We have come to expect brilliant acting from Hector Elizondo Ė and since 1960, he has rarely disappointed.  Elizondo has been on screens and stages all over the world for over forty years, though he seemed to pop up on most of the publicís radar for a supporting role as a kindly hotel manager in a surprise smash hit in 1990. 

Joking that the popular Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman was not his first try at acting, this charismatic veteran actor says, ďI always laugh when people say, ĎI remember you from Pretty Woman.í  My goodness,Ē he says, ďI was already in the business for 30 years by then.Ē 

Born and raised in New York, Elizondo has perfected his acting skills in hundreds of theatrical, television, film and radio roles.  These include his 1969 Obie Award winning role in Steambath, his spine-tingling portrayal of Mr. Grey in 1974ís hit Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three.  Elizondo has also become prolific director Garry Marshallís good luck charm Ė appearing in all sixteen of his movies.  Elizondoís television credits include appearances on old favorites like All in the Family, Maude, Columbo, Kojak and Baretta, as well as appearing in 141 episodes of Chicago Hope.

Elizondo was truly heartbroken earlier this year after the cancellation of Cane, a spicy, short-lived TV drama in which he portrayed the patriarch of a powerful Latin family running a rum business.  Unfortunately, Cane never really found its audience and while dealing with his disappointment, Elizondo had planned to take a little break from TV.  However following the tragic death of actor Stanley Kamel, Elizondo is now back in series work, fluffing the cushions on his couch for Tony Shalhoubís neurotic, obsessive and compulsive character in the popular series Monk. 

Elizondoís charm and kindness are infectious and he is truly one of the good guys in Hollywood.  Recently, Elizondo took some time out of his busy schedule to give us a call and talk about his nearly 50 years in acting, the new role on Monk and to make a passionate plea for us to all re-evaluate the role we are playing in the destruction of our environment and the planet. 

Hello, Hector!  How are you? 

Okay, my darling.  ListenÖ if we have a little interference itís because I am on a car phone. 

Thatís fine

I donít have my phone to my ear so I am not breaking the law.  But, you are coming loud and clear through my speakers. 

Oh great. 

And where are you calling from, my dear? 

Iím in Philadelphia

Oh, Philadelphia.  My granddaughter is going to school at Haverford College. 

Oh, wonderful.  Thatís a lovely area

Yes, she is a Haverford girl.  She wants to be a constitutional lawyer. 

Oh, good for her. 

Yes, I have a very precocious granddaughter.  Thank goodness. 

Oh, she sounds wonderful

Yeah.  I might need a lawyer in the future. 

Hey, everyone needs one in their family, right? 

(laughs) Well anyway, so you are in Philadelphia?  Good deal.  I spent some wonderful times there when I was doing out of town Broadway tryouts.  In fact, I was there when I was doing Sly Fox with George C. Scott in 1978 or Ď77. 

Itís a beautiful area. 

Iím from the New York theatre so I we used to go to Philadelphia a lot to do Broadway tryouts.  And I love Pennsylvania. 

Oh great. 

Yeah, like the Amish Country.  So, what can I do for you today? 

First of all...  I am really thrilled to be able to speak with you and ask you some questions about your career and what you are doing now.  You have now been acting over forty years.  When you started out, could you have ever have imagined that you would still be making a living at it after all these years later? 

No, of course not.  As a matter of a fact, I didnít think that I would last or live this long quite frankly.  (laughs)  No.  This was not part of my plan.  I didnít start in the business as a frivolity.  I started because I loved theatre.  I was trained in the theater Ė like everyone in my generation was.  But, I never thought about the future.  I thought of the projects that I would do next and about the authors or playwrights whose work Iíd love to perform Ė such as Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.  You know, all the great playwrights of the 50ís and 60ís.  So, we were pure actors Ė which is one of the reasons I did Monk, because Tony is a theater person.  Heís a generation behind me, a much younger man, but he has the same credentials, so I feel very comfortable with that. 

Youíve also been married for about 40 years, which is itself is pretty amazing in Hollywood.  Do you feel that your home stability made it easier to focus on your career? 

Yeah.  But I never really thought about my career too much and maybe I should have taken care of it more.  Perhaps.  I have a feeling about a career.  Itís like another moving part, a part that you have to take care of.  Iíd rather think of myself as having jobs.  Some jobs you have are better than others.  (laughs)  And you meet some lovely people along the way.  Career wasnít something I thought about too much.  Honestly, in the formative years, I actually thought I was working for writersÖ for authors.  What creates stability I think is a stable person Ė someone who has the right sense of values.  Fortunately for me, I come from a particular time, a generation where your value was predicated on how good your work was and what kind of person you were.  Itís a working class ethic that I brought into my profession.  And I never changed.  The main thing is to never take yourself seriously and think that because you are doing well and are recognizable in this profession or any others that you are successful.  To me, the definition of success is oneís capacity to love.  If you donít have that, then you are not successful.  No matter how many toys you have.  I was lucky that I never measured myself by the toys I had. 

Back in the 70ís, you were one of the first actors with a Latino background to have found such success and acceptance.  Do you think it was harder for you as a Latino male then others actors trying to make it?  

Well in the theater, it wasnít an issue for me thank goodness.  But later on in TV and movies it sometimes became an issue.  Usually though, if I could get an in-person interview, I could get the job.  Fortunately for me again, being theatre trained and having the kind of look I have Ė which is a very neutral look Ė I can play any nationality whatsoever, including the accentsÖ because I specialize in accents.  I was available for all sorts of possibilities.  I do comedy and drama.  When you bring those things to the table, there are always possibilities.  I was very lucky.  I didnít suffer some of the barriers that other actors suffered.  Maybe it was the time I was doing itÖ back in the 60ís in the theater; it was not the same thing.  Also, I never thought of myself as a Latin actor.  We donít think of ourselves as our nationalities.  My nationality is American.  My parents are from Spain and Puerto Rico but I am a New York City born-and-bred guy.  I never compartmentalized myself like that.  Just as Al Pacino never thought of himself as an Italian actor and Bueller never thought of himself as a German actor.  So, I didnít like that category.  I think that putting yourself in the box like that or having people put you in a box like that limits your opportunities.  

You have played so many legendary roles over the years.  Do you have any favorites? 

When you ask that question, I immediately think of stage.  I won the Obie Award for Steambath and interestingly, that was the first Latino I ever played.  (laughs)  And he was God.  Iíve since played God four times.  The first person I played with a vowel at the end of his name and I was supposed to win an Obie Award for best actor in 1970 in New York.  I started acting in 1960, by the way.  As far as movies are concerned, Iíd have to say Young Doctors in Love, which was Garry Marshallís first movie.  Pretty Woman was of course a delight to do.  The iconic 70ís movie The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three was one of the best movies of the 70ís.  Itís become a classic and is one of my favorites. 

Youíve been in almost all of Garry Marshallís movies.  How did you start working with him and why do you feel he keeps coming back to you? 

I havenít been in almost; Iíve been in all of them.  It is sixteen movies.  Well, I guess youíd have to read his autobiography, Wake Me When Itís Funny.  I know I have to read it in order to find out.  (laughs)  I canít tell you why but we are good friends and also speak the same creative language.  I like his mind.  I like his funny brain.  I like the way he works and the attention he pays to the actor and the respect he has for them.  Heís a very funny and kind man.  He brings a lot of humor and kindness to a set.  He doesnít shoot a movie so much as he throws a movie.  You have a lot of fun.  Itís like a party when you do a movie with him, in spite of the fact that movies arenít really a lot of fun to do.  Not fun at all.  They are a lot of work.  We are going to do our seventeenth movie in the near future, Iím sure. 

Early on in your career you played a lot of bad guys Ė like in The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three and your acclaimed guest role on Kojak.  Now it seems you play mostly nice ones.  How do think that has come about?  Do you miss playing the bad guy roles? 

AhÖ  I think Pretty Woman ruined the bad guy stint for me.  I loved playing villains but I donít get a chance to play them anymore.  I think most actors probably prefer playing villains.  They are more interesting but I donít seem to get that chance anymore. 

When you were making a little movie called Pretty Woman, did you have any idea that it would have become such a phenomenon?  

I think everyone was surprised.  No one can ever tell with that.  You go to work.  You work hard and put in your twelve, fourteen, fifteen hours a day and itís out of your hands.  But then sometimes you turn around and you can only feel very grateful.  You think: how about that?  Not only did people like it, they loved it.  Then it became this iconic movie.  It was quite startling to us.  We were very, very happy and very grateful for it. 

Last year you were in the TV series CaneI really liked it and was disappointed it didnít get more of a chance to find an audience.  Were you surprised it wasnít pushed harder? 

Cane was a wonderful show.  It was my favorite show I have ever been in.  It was everyoneís favorite show and we were disappointed and stunned.  The writersí strike ruined it for us.  They were ready to pick it up for another nine or ten and then the strike broke the momentum and it was just too much money for them. 

Yes, that was so disappointing, because it was a wonderful show. 

It was awful.  It was a terrific, quality show with great nuances and great regional sense to it.  I mean you could smell the coffee and smell the rum, you know?  We were actually brokenhearted over it. 

You have just joined Monk, which is going into its seventh season. How difficult is it coming in to a series that is so established Ė particularly because you have to replace such a beloved character? 

Well, itís always a challenge to walk into a family like that.  But, with someone like Tony and with the kind of environment heís helped to create, itís no problem to me.  Iíve never had a problem unless people are very mean.  Tony is one of the nicest people in the industry and a true professional.  The environment was really terrific and I actually I know half the people there, since Iíve worked for so many decades.  I know half the crew and the actors and it took me about three-and-a-half minutes.  It was a challenge at first thoughÖ knowing I was following such a beloved actor, but now we are part of the family and playing a different kind of fellow. 

The producers of Monk said that you were their first thought when they realized that they had to replace Stanley Kamel.  How flattering was that? 

Well, I was delighted.  In fact, Tony himself called me and that sort of sewed it up for me because I wasnít looking to come back to television.  In fact after Cane, I wanted some time off because it was so disappointing.  I was feeling the pain, you know?  Especially for Jimmy Smits, who worked so hard.  He really, really, really worked hard.  Heís a terrific actor and person and it was a heartbreaking experience, so I wasnít ready to jump back on the horse.  But when this came along, this was special.  I do a scene a week.  Thatís something I can handle. 

How familiar were you with the show before you were approached to join? 

Well, I knew the show.  I donít watch television that regularly but Monk of course I knewÖ because again, everybody watches Tony.  Tony is the kind of actor that you go out of your way to see.  So, I knew the show somewhat.  It was Tony Shalhoub that really turned the corner for me. 

Tony Shalhoub has created such an interesting, eccentric character.  Whatís it like playing against him?  Do you ever fear you may crack up? 

Oh, I think weíve done that a couple of times.  Whatís wonderful about playing with Tony is that with him itís always fresh.  Heís always working on the character like itís the first week of shooting.  You wouldnít think that heís doing this going on seven years because heís always fresh and enthusiastic about what he does.  Thatís what rubs off and he still laughs about the character, and so do I.  A couple of times we do have to stop shooting the scene because we were laughing so hard.  Itís definitely the most indelible character since Columbo and Peter Falk.

Iím expecting to get a screener of your first episode in the next day or so, but I havenít seen you on the show yet.  Tell me a bit about your character. 

Well, Iím of course the new Psychiatrist Ė who was a friend of Psychiatrist who passed away.  He knows Adrian and he knows the syndromes and his issues.  Being a different kind of man, heís determined that heís going to turn the next page on Monkís rehabilitation.  Heíll approach it somewhat differently.  Heís going to push the envelope with Tony a little bit.  Heís going to push Tony to deal with some of his issues.  But down the road, you never know if heís going to be the therapist or if Iím going to be the therapist.  I hope you get to watch the first show.  The characters are very different.  My studio is warm and woody and brown and very bookish and I think my character comes from a non-academic background who loves jazz, loves music.  Heís a self-educated guy.  A different kind fellow. 

Will you be in all of the episodes this season? 

Well, I think Iím going to be in nine or ten of the sixteen to begin with.  Then weíll see how it goes. 

I hear that you are active in trying to revive radio drama as an art form.  How did you get involved with this?  Why do you think it is so important? 

Iíve been involved with radio since I was a kid.  I was a founding member of the Los Angeles Theater Works, LATW radio group.  Twenty-five years ago we formed it: myself, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, JoBeth Williams and a bunch of other wonderful people.  We are the premier radio group in America.  We have recorded over 200 shows for us and also many shows for the BBC, which is the premier radio outlet in the world.  Radio drama is very important to me because it is a pure actorís medium.  Itís a pure writerís medium, because in radio, you deal with the text and with the writing.  Not with your personality or whether youíre cute or the flavor of the month.  Youíre telling a story.  Youíre a shaman.  You disappear.  It doesnít matter what youíre wearing.  You are creating and you use your imagination.  I think radio is an incredible imaginative tool, a great outlet.  Thatís why all the British actors [do radio], because they love text.  All British actors, no matter how famous they are, all do radio.  They deal with language.  Language is the architecture of thought.  Thatís when you get the best writing.  Itís like doing a play without being on stage.  Itís very, very exciting.  Itís also quite fun.  You can actually do a radio broadcast and get together War and Peace, for example, where you could never do that as a movie.  It would cost too much and it would never get off the ground.  On radio, itís possible. 

Thatís fascinating. 

Yeah.  I just did radio this morning actually.  Radio is a very, very important form of creative expression for me. 

You have worked in theater, film, television and radio.  Do you have one you prefer? 

I prefer the venue where the text is better Ė the writing is good.  When the writing is good, you will find that you are very, very satisfied.  Whether it is radio, it is film, if it is theater or television if the writing is good, and the producers are good Ė which means that they hired the right people and the atmosphere is good Ė then itís great.  Sometimes you can do theater, for instance, and have a terrible experience because itís a bad play.  So again I must say the text is the thing. 

I read that you are a talented guitarist and singer.  Do you ever get to use those skills in your acting or private life?

I have.  If you seen some of Garry Marshallís movies, Iíve played guitar in Young Doctors in Love.  I sung on The Other Sister.  I love jazz.  Jazz is the way I think and I feel.  Iíve been involved with music since I was a kid. 

Do you enjoy adding your passion for music into your acting? 

I guess I put it in without even realizing.  Just in the way I walk.  (laughs)  Thereís just something about me that exudes jazz.  People say, ďHow did I know that you loved music?Ē  Itís just in my speech, my abilities.  I love all music.  I love classical music.  I adore classical music.  I am a music lover.  I go to Chamber Concerts and I go to Symphonies.  I love Afro/Cuban music because I think thatís the most exciting music of all.  So, music is the way I float. 

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Letís see.  What would they be surprised by?  Oh, I love wilderness.  My idea of a hot time is a pair of binoculars and a beautiful trail and looking at wildlife and flowers.  I have a Zen Buddhist kanji on my wall, a Zen-Buddhist calligraphy that says, ďSilence is like a clap of thunder.Ē  I think that the silence of the wilderness is like a deafening roar to it.  Itís a very wonderful place to be and I think we are slowly ruining the world for our children and future generations.  It saddens me everyday. 

It saddens me too.  I have two young children and breaks my heart to see what we are doing to the world. 

To this world and our fellow creatures.  Other animals.  We are not the only animals in this world.  We are the most powerful and the most greedy.  And we seem to want more than we need always. 

How would you like for people to look at your body of work? 

That I usually turned a silk purse into a sowís ear.  (laughs)  No really, itís the other way around.  I turned a sowís ear into a silk purse; in other words, I did the best with what I had.  I took advantage of my opportunities.  I tried to be a true professional and all inclusive while working well with all people.  In a work sense, by never poisoning my environment with a bad attitude or bad work or just being a person who is self-evolved. 

Are there any misconceptions youíd like to clear up? 

Some people donít know that Iím from New York City, born and raised.  They also donít know that the name Elizondo is really a Basque name.  Elizondo is one of the oldest Basque names and it means ďat the foot of the church.Ē  The Basque country is in the north of Spain and in the South of France.  Iím from New York City and my folks are from Puerto Rico and fatherís people are from the Basque country.  And also, some people think, are you 5í2Ē?  (laughs)  Itís ridiculous!  And yes, those blue eyes are mine, not contacts! 

I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. 

One more postscript Ö one of my most important involvements is keeping this planet from rapacious, greedy human beings.  Itís a terrible thing we are doing our planet and we have to stop it and we have a chance to at least slow it down. 

Letís hope that there are millions of others who feel the same way so we can finally stop doing some of the harm and the damage we are doing to this world. 

Thatís right.  Itís only everything, right?

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Photo Credits:
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#3 © 2008 Isabella Vosmikova. Courtesy of USA Network.  All rights reserved.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 7, 2008.

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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 7, 2008.