Olmos, Edward James: 1947—: Actor
Edward James Olmos: 1947—: Actor
Edward James Olmos is one of the most influential voices of the Latino community in the United States. As an actor, he has produced a commendable body of work that has earned him numerous awards and unlimited accolades. But Olmos's life is more than a story of poor kid from the barrio who made it big in Hollywood. He is not only an actor but an activist, with a deep commitment to his community.
Grew Up in the Barrio
Olmos was born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles to Pedro and Eleanor (Huizar) Olmos. Olmos credited his parents, who divorced in 1955, for being his lifelong inspiration. He told Instyle 's Kathryn Hart, "My mother is the reason I know God is a woman. She's worked for 20 years—from age 54 to 74—at County General Hospital in Los Angeles. She has worked from 11 o'clock at night to 7 in the morning in the AIDS ward, where she's held the hands of many, many people as they died. It's a gift."
Although diverse in culture and language, the East Los Angeles neighborhood in which Olmos grew up shared the common denominator of poverty. "Inside this world, everyone was the same," he told Guy D. Garcia of Time. "We were all poor. And the only way to survive it was through a constant struggle of trying to be better today than you were yesterday." As a youngster, Olmos stayed out of trouble and out of the gangs that dominated much of life in the barrio. Instead of running with a gang, Olmos played baseball, which taught him discipline, patience, and determination—all traits that helped propel him out of the barrio. He excelled at the sport, winning the Golden State batting championship at the age of 14.
At the age of 15, Olmos's hopes of a career in baseball turned into dreams of singing and dancing, primarily because he believed that it held out more promise for getting him out of poverty. Despite lacking an over-abundance of natural talent, Olmos committed himself to learning to play the piano and sing. By the time he graduated from high school, he had formed the band Pacific Ocean, which played frequently at clubs along Sunset Strip. It was during a Pacific Ocean gig that Olmos meet his first wife, Kaija Keel, daughter of actor Howard Keel. The two hit it off and married in 1971; by the time he was 25 years old, Olmos was married with two children. The couple stayed together until their sons were grown, divorcing in 1994.
At a Glance . . .
Born on February 24, 1947, in East Los Angeles; married Kaija Keel, 1971; divorced, 1994; children: two sons, Mico and Bodie (with Keel); married Lorraine Bracco, 1994; divorced, 2002. Education: studied at East Los Angeles City College.
Career: lead vocalist of Pacific Ocean, 1960s; owner of a furniture-moving business, 1970s; starred as El Pachuco in theatre production of Zoot Suit, 1978; Blade Runner, 1982;The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1983; Stand and Deliver, 1988; American Me, 1992; A Million to Juan, 1994; My Family/Mi Familia, 1995;; Selena, 1997; The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, 1997; The Road to El Dorado, 2000; In the Time of the Butterflies, 2001; tv series: American Family, 2002-.
Membership: Natl Goodwill Ambassador, UNICEF; Recruiting New Teachers; UCLA Mentoring Program; the Natl Council on Adoption; spokesperson: Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, AIDS Awareness Foundation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Destructive Decisions, Parkinson's Disease Foundation, and Alzheimer's Foundation.
Awards: Best Actor, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, for Zoot Suit, 1978; Theatre World Award, for Zoot Suit, 1979; Antoinette Perry Award, for Zoot Suit, 1979; Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for Miami Vice, 1985; Golden Globe Award, for The Burning Season, 1994.
Address: Agent— Artists Agency, 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Despite his longhaired rocker appearance, Olmos maintained his industrious lifestyle. He attended East Los Angeles City College during the day and often studied at the clubs at night, pulling out his books during breaks between sets. At first he pursued psychology and criminology, until Olmos signed up for a drama course to help him with his stage presence as a singer. Much to his surprise, he discovered that he enjoyed acting, and soon he had fallen in love with the idea of becoming an actor. Making enough money as an actor to provide for his family proved to be challenging initially. Undeterred, after Pacific Ocean broke up, Olmos bought the band's oversized van and started a business delivering antique furniture to supplement his income.
Hauling furniture during the day, Olmos spent his nights working in experimental theater. Eventually he began landing bit parts in television shows. Almost always playing a tough, bad-guy role, Olmos was awarded small parts in episodes of such television series as Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, ChiPs, Medical Center, Magnum P.I., and Police Woman. He also had minor roles in several films, including Alambrista and Aloha, Bobby and Rose. Looking back, Olmos laughed at his acting abilities early in his career. As he told Elaine Dutka of Time, "I was the only person Jack Lord [of Hawaii Five-O] shot in the back, ever.… That's how bad I was."
Olmos's first major break came on the theatrical stage in 1978 when he landed a leading role of the Los Angeles production of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit. The play, a musical drama, is a fictionalized account of the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which a group of young Hispanic men are falsely convicted of murder following what became known as the 1942 Los Angeles zoot suit riots. Olmos tried out for the part of "El Pachuco," the leader of the gang and the epitome of the angry, macho Hispanic man who acts as the narrator and conscience of the story. At the audition, Olmos told Garcia, "I spoke in caló, street jive from the streets of East L.A.—a mix of Spanish, English, and Gypsy. They asked me if I could dance, and I hit a perfect set of splits, turning the brim of my hat as I came up." Awarded the role, Olmos played the part to perfection and received rave reviews for his performance.
Zoot Suit was only scheduled for a ten-week run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; however, after positive reviews, the production ran eight more weeks before relocating to the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, where it ran for the next nine months. The production then moved to Broadway's Winter Garden theater, where it was not as well received and subsequently closed after only seven weeks. For his performance, he earned a Los Angeles Critics Circle Award, and his Broadway appearance garnered him the Theatre World Award for most outstanding new performer. He was also nominated for an Antoinette Perry Award. In 1982 Zoot Suit was released as a feature film, with Olmos retaining the role of El Pachuco. Despite the production's short run in New York City and a lukewarm reception of the film version, Olmos had clearly made his mark.
Following the success of Zoot Suit, Olmos no longer had to knock on doors for bit parts. During the early 1980s he accepted supporting roles in the movies Wolfen (1981) and Blade Runner (1982). However, early in his career as a known and sought-after actor, Olmos decided to accept only projects that held meaning for him. For this reason, he turned down director Brian De Palma's offer to cast him in his movie Scarface, which told the story of a Cuban immigrant who is drawn into the violent world of drug-dealing. He also refused parts in Red Dawn and Firestarter and, although he made numerous appearances on the show, Olmos passed up an opportunity to join the permanent cast of the popular television drama Hill Street Blues because the required five-year contract was exclusive, thus denying him the ability to take on other, more meaningful, projects during that time.
Olmos's next major project was the 1982 Public Broadcasting Company's (PBS) American Playhouse production of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, in which Olmos played the title role. The film was based on the true tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican folk hero who was traditionally held to be a fierce bandito. However, after researching the film, Olmos discovered that Cortez was, in fact, not an outlaw at all, but a poor rancher and honest family man. Only through misinterpretation and a misunderstanding between cultures was Cortez wrongly accused of murder in 1901 and pursued across Texas by a 600-man posse. After its run on television, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was slated for the big screen; however, no major studios could be persuaded to release it, perhaps in part because Olmos spoke Spanish throughout the film with no subtitles. Determined that the story of Cortez was too important to let fade, Olmos began a five-year personal crusade to distribute the film across the country.
In 1984 Olmos joined the cast of television series Miami Vice as Lieutenant Martin Castillo. The show, which centered on the careers of two undercover vice-squad cops, garnered a significant viewing audience even though the majority of critics were less than enthusiastic. Olmos, for his part, received commendable reviews, and although he did little promoting of the show and voiced concerns that it propagated stereotypes, he earned him an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
Stand and Deliver
The stand-out performance of Olmos's career thus far came in the 1988 release of Stand and Deliver. The film told the true story of Bolivian-born Jaime Escal-ante, a successful computer scientist who left his career to teach math to underprivileged Hispanic kids from the barrios of East Los Angeles. The inspirational story focused on Escalante's relationship with his students at Garfield High School as he challenged them to achieve more than expected and more than they believed they could. Then, in 1982 after scoring higher than expected on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam, they are launched into controversy when the Educational Testing Service suspected foul play and opened an investigation.
Olmos portrayed Escalante with intensity and exceptional accuracy. To prepare for the part, Olmos studied Escalante for hours, observing him both in and out of the classroom. He also gained 40 pounds and spent hours studying tapes of Escalante to perfect his speech and mannerisms. Olmos even considered moving in with Escalante for a time, but Escalante's wife vetoed that idea. The movie grossed more than nine times its modest production costs, and Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance as Escalante. Hoping to bring the film to the largest possible audience, Olmos convinced several major corporations to sponsor his efforts to place a copy of the film in every school, library, and youth organization across the nation.
From American Me to American Family
Following Stand and Deliver Olmos appeared in numerous films, often in conjunction with director Robert M. Young, with whom he had formed the production company, YOY Productions. He played Gypsy in Triumph of the Spirit (1989) and a baseball talent scout in Talent for the Game (1991). In 1992 he delved into directing as he coproduced, directed, and starred in American Me, a graphic and realistic story of crime and violence in the United States as it moves from the streets into the prisons. Olmos portrayed a character named Santana, a gang member who lands in Folsom State Prison but continues to run his Mexican Mafia from his jail cell, operating drugs, gambling, prostitution, and extortion rings. Intense and accurate, the film served as a message of the dangerous, and often tragic, nature of gang and prison life.
Once again with something important to say, Olmos traveled the country promoting the film and attending special screenings for youth organizations and communities. "This film is not for one race, one subculture, one age range," Olmos explained to Newsweek 's Jack Kroll. "Gangs teach a distorted discipline, a distorted familial bonding, a distorted sense of pride and power. I made this movie to allow all society to take a journey into an uncharted land that they would never have the opportunity to go into." Olmos also took part in the production of Lives in the Hazard. Released in 1994 as a follow-up, the film was a documentary that revisited some of the real-life gang members that served as extras in American Me. For his involvement with American Me Olmos received death threats from the actual Mexican Mafia and for a time feared for life. In the same year Olmos married Lorraine Bracco, an actress and ex-wife of actor Harvey Keitel. In January of 2002 Bracco filed for divorce from Olmos.
Also notable on the list of Olmos's film work were his roles in My Family/Mi Familia (1995), a film in which he served as the narrator of a multigenerational Mexican-American family saga, and Selena, (1997) the story of the life and murder of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla. Along with his film career, Olmos regularly appeared in television movies, series, and specials. He starred Home Box Office's film The Burning Season (1994), a film about the life of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes, for which Olmos received a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award nomination. Olmos also worked on Dead Man's Walk (1996), the prequel to the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove, and 12 Angry Men (1997). In 2001 Olmos appeared in Steve Martini's The Judge and Showtime's production of In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized account of three Dominican women martyred in 1960 during the last days of Dominican dictator Trujillo's rule. He has also narrated and contributed to numerous documentaries.
In 2002 Olmos joined the cast of a new television series, American Family, which airs on PBS. The episodes evolve around the lives of a Hispanic-American family in Los Angeles. Olmos plays Jess Gonzales, the conservative and old-fashioned father, something of a Latino Archie Bunker, who attempts with moderate success to deal with and understand his five grown children. It is the first Hispanic-dominated series to ever air on television.
Actor as Activist
Olmos is not only an actor, but also a tireless activist. Although sometimes the two roles blend together, as they did in his projects The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Stand and Deliver, and American Me, Olmos has spent a vast majority of his time over the course of his career simply working to make life better for others. By his own count, he spends 94 percent of his time working for free. Looking at his long resume of good deed doing, the number doesn't seem unrealistic. Besides his continually packed schedule on the speaker's circuit, Olmos offers his support to a wide range of social programs.
By living his life giving as much as possible and expecting little in return, Olmos hopes to leave a worthy legacy. As he told Hispanic 's Katherine Diaz, "I would hate to look back on my life and only see myself as a person who made lots of money and was a star and made Rambo and Terminator movies. I have made my body of work something that I am proud of and that in 100 years my great-great-grandchildren will go and see my work and say, 'Well, grandpa really did some extraordinarily different kinds of work.'"
Zoot Suit, 1981.
Blade Runner, 1982.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1983.
Miami Vice (television series), 1984—1989.
Saving Grace, 1986.
Stand and Deliver, 1987.
Triumph of the Spirit, 1989.
Talent for the Game, 1991.
American Me, 1992.
Roosters (television), 1993.
Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills (television miniseries), 1994.
The Burning Season—The Chico Mendes Story (television movie), 1994
A Million to Juan, 1994.
My Family/Mia Familia, 1995.
Dead Man's Walk (television movie), 1996
The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, 1997.
The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, 1997.
12 Angry Men (television movie), 1997.
Hollywood Confidential, 1997.
The Limbic Region, 1997.
The Wall (television documentary), 1998.
Bonanno: A Godfather's Story, 1999.
The Princess and the Barrio Boy, 2000.
The Road to El Dorado, 2000.
In the Time of the Butterflies (television movie), 2001.
The Judge (television movie), 2001.
American Family (television series), 2002.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1996.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses. New York: St. James Press, 1996.
Newsmakers. Issue 1. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1990.
Rooney, Terrie M., ed. Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III. Farmington Hills: Gale Research, 1998.
Hispanic, December 2000.
Instyle, February 2002.
Los Angeles Magazine, April 1993.
The Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1992.
Newsweek, March 30, 1992.
People Weekly, January 21, 2002.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 30, 2002.
Time, April 4, 1988; July 11, 1988.
The Toronto Sun, January 24, 2002.
The Washington Times, January 21, 2002.
Behind the Scenes, Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.org/americanfamily/
Sony Classics, www.sonyclassics.com/caught/crew/olmos.html
"Olmos, Edward James: 1947—: Actor." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/olmos-edward-james-1947-actor
"Olmos, Edward James: 1947—: Actor." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/olmos-edward-james-1947-actor
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Olmos, Edward James
OLMOS, Edward James
Nationality: American. Born: East Los Angeles, California, 24 February 1947. Family: Married 1) Kaija Keel, 1971 (divorced, 1992), sons: Mico and Bodie; 2) the actress Lorraine Bracco, 1994. Education: Attended East Los Angeles City College and California State University, Los Angeles; studied drama at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Career: Formed a rock band, Eddie James and the Pacific Ocean, to help pay his college tuition, 1960s; began acting in small stage productions in Los Angeles and appearing in bit roles on such TV series as Kojak, Cannon, CHiPs, Medical Center, and Hawaii Five-O, 1970s; starred as El Pachuco in Zoot Suit on the Los Angeles stage, 1978; appeared in the TV mini-series Evening in Byzantium, 1978; played El Pachuco in New York, 1979; had his first important screen role in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1982; played Lt. Martin Castillo on the TV series Miami Vice, 1984–89; appeared in the TV mini-series Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1988; formed YOY Productions with director Robert M. Young, 1992; named United States Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. Awards: Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor, for Zoot Suit, 1978; Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award, for Miami Vice, 1985; Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV Golden Globe, for Miami Vice, 1986; Best Male Lead Independent Spirit Award, for Stand and Deliver, 1987; Women in Film Crystal Award, 1989; Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture ade for TV Golden Globe, for The Burning Season, 1994; Lone Star Film and Television Award for Best Supporting Actor, for Selena, 1997. Agent: Artists Agency, 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA 90067, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
aloha, bobby and rose (Mutrux) (small role)
Alambrista! (Robert M. Young) (as drunk)
Fukkatsu no hi (Virus) (Fukasaku) (as Captain López)
Three Hundred Miles for Stephanie (Ware—for TV) (as Art Vela); Zoot Suit (Valdez) (as El Pachuco); Wolfen (Wadleigh) (as Eddie Holt)
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (Robert M. Young) (title role, + co-pr, co-mus); Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) (as Gaff); Sequin (Jesús Salvador Treviño—for TV)
Saving Grace (Robert M. Young) (as Ciolino)
Stand and Deliver (Menendez) (as Jaime Escalante)
Triumph of the Spirit (Robert M. Young) (as Gypsy)
Maria's Story (Wali and Cohen—doc) (as narrator)
Talent for the Game (Robert M. Young) (as Virgil Sweet)
Roosters (Robert M. Young) (as Gallo); A Million to Juan (A Million to One) (Paul Rodríguez) (as the Angel); Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills (Elikann—for TV) (as José Menendez)
The Burning Season (Frankenheimer—for TV) (as Wilson Pinheiro)
Mirage (Williams) (as Matteo Juárez); My Family (Mi Familia) (Nava) (as Paco, the narrator); Slave of Dreams (Robert M. Young—for TV) (as Potiphar)
Caught (Robert M. Young) (as Joe); Dead Man's Walk (Simoneau—mini for TV) (as Captain Salazar); The Limbic Region (Pattinson—for TV) (as Lucca)
Hollywood Confidential (Villalobos—for TV) (as Stan Navarro); Selena (Nava) (as Abraham Quintanilla); Death in Granada (The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca) (Zurinaga) (as Roberto Lozano); 12 Angry Men (Friedkin—for TV) (as Juror #11)
The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (Gordon) (as Vamenos); The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Félix Enríquez Alcalá) (as Det. Anthony Piscotti); The Wall (Sargent)
The Story of Fathers & Sons (Leonard, Ryan—for TV) (as himself); Bonanno: A Godfather's Story (Poulette—for TV) (as Salvatore Maranzano); The Unfinished Journey (Spielberg—doc) (short) (as Narrator)
The Road to El Dorado (Bergeron, Finn, Paul, Silverman) (as voice of Chief Tannabok); Gossip (Guggenheim) (as Detective Curtis)
American Me (d, co-pr, ro as Santana Montoya)
Americanos: Latino Life in the United States (pr)
By OLMOS: articles—
"Burning with Passion," interview with Guy D. Garcia and Elaine Dutka, in Time (New York), 11 July 1988.
Interview with M. Seligson, in Playboy (Chicago), June 1989.
"Ball Park Figures," interview with Lorraine Bracco, in Interview (New York), April 1991.
Interview with David Mills, in Washington Post, 21 March 1992.
"One Year Later—A Talk with Edward James Olmos," interview with Laura Meyers in Los Angeles Magazine, April 1993.
Interview with S. Muzaferija, in Ekran (Ljubljana), vol. 18, no. 1–2, 1993.
"A Latino in America," in Film International (Tehran), vol. 3, no. 3, 1995.
On OLMOS: articles—
Aufderheide, Pat, "Reel Life," in Mother Jones (San Francisco), April 1988.
Current Biography 1992, New York, 1992.
Leo, John, "The Melting Pot Is Cooking," in U.S. News and World Report (Washington, D.C.), 5 July 1993.
Everschor, Franz, "Ein Regisseur in Angst," in Film-dienst (Cologne), 14 September 1993.
Canfield, R. and Joaquin Orale, "Arresting the Dissemination of Violence in 'American Me,"' in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 22, no. 2, 1994.
Sales, N.J., "Keitel, Olmos, and Bracco's Bitter Custody Battle," in New York Magazine, 25 July 1994.
Lombardi, J., "Scenes from a Bad Movie Marriage," in New York Magazine, 12 January 1998.
* * *
Edward James Olmos is a savvy, street-smart performer who is one of the rare Hispanic Americans to have found major stardom on stage, screen, and television. After years of knocking around Los Angeles playing theater and television roles, his breakthrough came when he was cast in the Los Angeles stage production of Zoot Suit, a stylized musical drama blending fact with fiction. Zoot Suit details the plight of the leader of a gang of Mexican Americans who are about to do time in San Quentin for their part in the zoot suit riots in 1942 Los Angeles. Olmos's role was the pivotal one in the scenario: El Pachuco, a mythical character who is the embodiment of the dashing, self-respecting, virile Latino who so disrupted the complacency of Caucasian Californians back in the 1940s. Olmos offered a dynamic, star-making performance as El Pachuco, playing the role for a year-and-a-half on the Los Angeles and New York stages, and again in the less-than-successful screen adaptation.
Olmos soon was to gain his foothold as a screen actor in a film with which he remains extremely proud: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century drama about a now-legendary Mexican American, unjustly accused of murder, who manages to elude a 600-man Texas posse. The film was directed by veteran independent filmmaker Robert M. Young, who has become the actor's close friend and colleague. Over the years, they have worked on several projects (from 1977's Alambrista!, in which Olmos had a small role, to 1996's Caught).
To date, Olmos's best screen role has been in Stand and Deliver, a based-on-fact story featuring a most unusual movie hero: Jaime Escalante, a Bolivian-born computer scientist who relinquished a high-paying job to teach math in an East Los Angeles barrio high school. The bespeckled Escalante's slight paunch and nondescript appearance in no way obscure his intense dedication to his job, as he inspires his young Hispanic charges to pass an Advanced Placement calculus test. Olmos transformed his physical appearance to become Escalante; he gained 40 pounds, and each day endured an excruciating makeup process in order to camouflage his own abundant head of hair. For his efforts, he earned a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
Olmos claims that he often has been offered—and regularly turns down—roles as stereotypical Hispanics, or throwaway parts in mindlessly entertaining Hollywood fare. "If I'd accepted them, I feel I would be compromising myself," he has declared. "I'm only interested in making films that I can be proud to take into my community." Not all of Olmos's films have been of the social-issue variety; he offered sharp performances in Selena, playing the devoted, watchful father of the murdered Tejano singer, and Caught, an atmospheric Postman Always Rings Twice re-working in which he is a long-married fish store proprietor whose life is disrupted when sexual sparks fly between his wife and a drifter. Notwithstanding, many of the actor's roles have been infused with a political consciousness. This certainly is the case with El Pachuco, Gregorio Cortez, and Jaime Escalante. It is true in the TV movie The Burning Season, in which he plays the Brazilian political activist/union leader Wilson Pinheiro, as well as in My Family, a warmhearted multigenerational chronicle of a Mexican-American clan from the 1920s through 1980s. Given Olmos's status as an elder statesman of Latino stars, it is appropriate that his role is that of the narrator, the chronicler of the Sánchez family saga.
Most significantly, this also is the case with the film in which Olmos made his directorial debut: the gritty, realistically rendered American Me. Olmos stars as a character who is the polar opposite of Jaime Escalante: Santana, a career felon and "child of the Pachuco riots of the 1940s." The film opens with a recreation of the zoot suit melee; in this regard, American Me is linked to the time and place depicted in Zoot Suit. Santana becomes immersed in the gang lifestyle while a teenager, and eventually does a lengthy prison stretch. If he starts out as an amateur punk, he earns his professional credentials while incarcerated as he builds his criminal empire from within the California penal system.
American Me does not finger-point at racism as an explanation for the existence of a man such as Santana. Instead, the film offers the character as a by-product of the erosion of society in general. In no way does Olmos idealize his character; the Variety reviewer was on target when he called Santana "one of the least romanticized film gangsters since Paul Muni's Scarface." Yet despite its good intentions, American Me has been viewed on two levels: as a cautionary tale about contemporary America, that serves to indict the violence and chaos of society; and as a textbook on how to build a criminal empire from scratch. For this reason, it was and remains highly controversial.
Finally, and most impressively, Edward James Olmos is unlike the many actors and sports stars from modest backgrounds who upon attaining celebrityhood have slammed the door on their roots. Not only is he deeply concerned about the way in which Hispanics are depicted on movie screens, but he remains active in a hands-on manner in the East Los Angeles community in which he came of age.
"Olmos, Edward James." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/olmos-edward-james
"Olmos, Edward James." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/olmos-edward-james