It’s been years since Edward James Olmos last saw “Stand and Deliver,” the 1988 movie that made him the first Mexican-American actor to secure an Academy Award nomination. But watching a 30th anniversary screening at this month’s Panama International Film Festival, the actor was deeply moved.
“It was very emotional. I openly wept,” the actor said, recalling his feelings about portraying the young East L.A. math teacher Jaime Escalante — and the impact the sleeper hit biopic had on audiences worldwide.
“Ninety-five percent of my life is bringing awareness to the difficulties of people’s plights,” he said during an interview at the chic Central Hotel in Panama City’s colonial-era Casco Viejo the following day. “There is such imbalance. I’ve received so much support from life itself. I live a very privileged life. I mean, I’ve been able to live as an artist my entire life.”
At 72, Olmos, has amassed decades of noteworthy performances on film and TV, including roles in “Battlestar Galactica,” “Blade Runner” and “Miami Vice.” More recently, he’s played the scuttling old butcher with a secret past on “Mayans M.C.,” Kurt Sutter’s Latino-inflected spin-off of “Sons of Anarchy.”
Like Olmos, whose career started with baseball and then music, “Stand and Deliver” took a winding and unlikely path to box office success and cultural prominence. It also brought Olmos a new level of fame, far beyond his earlier stage role as Pachuco in the musical “Zoot Suit.” And it was yet another tale about the Latino journey in America, the sort that seem to attract Olmos’ interest like steel to a magnet.
With “Stand and Deliver,” Olmos wanted to be part of one of the first films to “break through and talk to a Latino market,” something he said too few mainstream films are doing even still. According to the MPAA, in 2017 the Latinx population had the highest rate of moviegoing in the U.S. of all ethnicities. In 2018, the Latinx population, which represents 18% of the U.S. population, made up 24% of all moviegoers.
“They love going to the movies,” Olmos said. “They love to spend their money on entertainment.”
Financing for “Stand and Deliver” was uniquely structured for that era. Lindsay Law, then a forward-thinking executive producer at PBS’ “American Playhouse,” put up $450,000 seed money to get the project started. The resulting patchwork of backers resulted in something not too different from how Netflix structures deals today: PBS got TV rights after what was expected to be a one-week limited theatrical run.
“Then Warner Bros. saw it and, bingo! They got it,” Olmos recalls. “They bought it for $5 million and reworked the deal with PBS, where they released it as a major motion picture, with PBS getting domestic TV rights.”
Olmos and Escalante really got to know each other when they spent six days going over the script together and defining how Olmos would represent Escalante on screen. “I miss him dearly, ” he said of the educator, who died in 2010 at age 79. “Jaime was a great human being.”
Tom Musca, who wrote the film with director Ramón Menéndez, recalled taking Olmos to Escalante’s night class, where the actor studied Escalante from the minute they were introduced.
“The way he walked. The way he put his hand in his belt, that was all Escalante,” said Musca, who now teaches at Miami University.
Viewers responded strongly to the film, reinforcing to Olmos how important it was to retain creative control over his characters. Even before “Stand and Deliver,” he had insisted on that contract provision in his deals. In a time when networks did not typically give actors non-exclusive contracts nor control over their characters, Olmos got both on Michael Mann’s hot new NBC TV series “Miami Vice.”
He had just finished “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” the story of a real-life Mexican-American tenant farmer in the early 20th century whose challenges to the Texas Rangers led to a deadly confrontation along the southern U.S. border — “the first American hero of Latin descent,” Olmos said. Directed by long-time producing partner Robert M. Young, the film remains one of the actor’s favorites. (The film was restored recently and is available on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not online.)
Then Mann called and offered him “Miami Vice” — which he almost declined despite the show’s success and the promise of a steady paycheck. “I’m not trying to make money with my business,” he said. “I am trying to create pieces of work that will actually help me understand who I am or make something that has never been seen before.”
But Mann kept calling, and offering more money, even more than Olmos’ father “had made in his lifetime.” Finally, Olmos thought he could fend Mann off by demanding control over his character and non-exclusivity. Mann agreed. The result was the zen-cool Lt. Castillo, a distinctive character in 1980s pop culture, his wash-and-wear black suit standing out against the show’s pastel Versace universe. “Miami Vice” was a breakthrough for both Olmos and Latino actors on overwhelmingly white network TV in the era.
Next up for Olmos is a film by his son, Michael. “Windows on the World,” which has already played festivals in Sedona and Boston and won three prizes at The Method Festival. It follows a man from Mexico to New York City after 9/11 to find his father, an undocumented worker at the world famous restaurant atop the World Trade Center. The elder Olmos plays the father.
“I want to do great work,” he says. “I want to do work where I can look back and say, ‘Man, I really learned something from that, I got something out of it in the community.’ What a great way to use the medium.”