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John Leguizamo, All Jokes Aside

The comedian talks about his dad, his marriage and Ghetto Klown, his one-man show now on Broadway

Ghetto Klown is John Leguizamo: hip grinding, speed talking and break dancing with the energy of a 2-year-old on a sugar high. Four-letter words still fly; the cringe factor still keeps you shifting in your seat.

But this time it's different. Late in his new one-man show, as the greenish glow of a hospital hallway looms on a screen behind him, John Leguizamo hears "Pops," who has suffered a stroke, say to him: "I'm glad you got to be the man I wanted to be."

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A disbelieving Leguizamo is left wondering why it took a serious health crisis for him to finally reconnect with his father. The audience is left silent.

I'm airing a lot of dirty laundry. You cause big problems when you're a blabbermouth.

John Leguizamo

With Ghetto Klown, the comedian/actor says, he's "putting a lid" on one-man autobiographical shows, which also include Sexaholix...A Love Story and his 1999 Emmy-winning show, Freak. And an end to his years-long feud with his father, Alberto, whose belittling words he accuses "the King of Killjoys" of showering upon him since childhood — the same man who threatened to sue after seeing his portrayal in Freak. The two remain estranged.

Alberto isn't the only family member who's been hurt by Leguizamo's style of humor. Virtually everyone, says his mother, Luz, has been furious with John at one point or another: his brother, his cousins and even her. John doesn't apologize. "He said, 'Mom, that's my truth. I'm not going to tell the story your way. I'm going to tell it my way,' " Luz recounts.

In a recent interview, John talked about the pain he's caused. "I'm purged, but [my family] is left drowning in the aftermath. I'm airing a lot of dirty laundry. Nobody likes that. You know, you cause big problems when you're a blabbermouth."

He calls Ghetto Klown — which is playing on Broadway to sellout crowds — his "most mature" work because it resolves issues raised in his earlier one-man shows. "When you get older, when you get my age, it's more about figuring out how to have closure on certain things," says Leguizamo, on the brink of turning 47. "I'm no longer in my battling years, like when I was in my 20s and early 30s."

Though he's been in more than 100 movies and TV shows, written and performed in award-winning plays, and created House of Buggin', a television show with an all-Latino cast, nothing's come easily for the Colombia-born comic. Not even while he was growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, which he calls "ghetto lite": "We were the early Latin family in the neighborhood; I got beat up by everybody. I won some fights, too."

Home could be tough, too. "My parents were immigrants, very ambitious and, you know, it was tough to be a Latin person," especially where there were none, he adds. "So all of that fits into my work; all of that gave me a sense of humor, my point of view on life, and it's still shaping my work."

Ironically, it also shaped him another way. "John's a lot like his father," says Luz, who divorced Alberto when John was about 12. "He just doesn't want to admit it."

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In his own words

Leguizamo's "author's note," published in the Ghetto Klown Playbill

While based on truth, events within the play have been re-created for clarity. Some moments in the piece fall out of their original timeline to create a more streamlined narrative. One or two characters are an amalgam, but all are portrayed true to my remembrance of them. I had to change some names at the behest of my lawyer for litigious reasons. Though all the dialogue is essentially true, it has been distilled and concentrated. I'm not a good liar, so it's not dramaturgy, only lack of artifice.

I wish to transport you into my world as I saw it — rootless and undocumented. It's my endless quest to examine my life, to create a history and legacy where there wasn't one. I try not to judge those chemical and electric moments that have forged me as a storyteller as good or bad, but as stepping stones toward self-expression and self-fulfillment. I always felt that the more times I told my tale to as many people as I could find, I could exorcise the pain from my soul. I also felt that the admission of my culpability immediately absolves me of responsibility for the consequences. Being self-aware means one is not lying. And no one outside of politics likes a liar.

Doing a live autobiography before one is dead is maybe an act of self-destruction and maybe an act of shedding an old skin. It's an act of self-hate and self-adulation. It's many contradictory elements combined to create an illusion of normalcy, which hopefully allows you to come with me on this journey toward a victory over those forces we don't understand, called life.

— John Leguizamo

Alberto pursued a career in entertainment in his late teens, going to Italy to study filmmaking, Luz says. And John's love of animals — he has two dogs, Chubaca and Colby — comes from his father. So do his passion for gardening, skill in the kitchen and vision in business. He's smart, organized — and frugal. Luz, his business manager, laughs. "Just like his dad; he turns down the thermostat, turns off all the lights."

He'll reluctantly admit seeing a partial reflection of his dad in his life, but Leguizamo has taken a very different path with his own family. He married too young the first time, but it prepared him for marriage to his current wife, Justine, and "to be a lot less selfish." He adds: "Being an actor, especially at first, tends to make you incredibly narcissistic. My wife … was my savior. I've achieved my best artistic levels, and it's all because of her."

They're a perfect match, Justine says: "I'm grounded and practical. I provide a stable ground for him to move from." A necessity in a career where instability reigns, she adds.

But there's one thing that's unshakable. "No matter how busy or how much pressure he's under, when he's here, he's absolutely present" for her and children Allegra, 11, and Lucas, 10. Plus, "he gives [the kids] the freedom to be themselves … the gift of letting them see how important it is to be an individual and to be confident with their individuality."

Time with dad means acting with him as characters in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, dancing together before he walks them to school, being taught good manners, listening when he calls politicians and learning that four-letter words are forbidden, says Justine. Fines go in a jar at home.

Leguizamo is also a hopeless news junkie. "News and politics are all I crave," he says, eyes focused on his smartphone. "Now I'm the dad looking at the newspaper on the table. … You feel responsible for the world."

Brad Furman, director of The Lincoln Lawyer, in which Leguizamo has a major part, knows that dad. "He fights for a lot of good causes politically and socially. It's important to him not to have people be complacent with injustice."

Two of Leguizamo's causes are the East Harlem Tutorial Program and The Fresh Air Fund. When he was a kid, the Fund sent him to live for two weeks with a wealthy family in the New York countryside. "It was incredibly mind-opening for me," says the entertainer.

He wants to open minds, too, especially among young Latinos. "When I was a kid, I felt very disconnected from the American dream, like I wasn't really a part of it," he says. "It wasn't something for me, it was for other people. I'm sure those kids feel that. There's got to be some way to break that, to show them that they can make it too."

Leguizamo's dad might not have been there for him, but mentors were. His high school math teacher sent the neighborhood punk to an acting coach who guided John from street to stage. Leguizamo pays homage to both in Ghetto Klown.

He also pays homage to diversity. His mother is Colombian, his father is Puerto Rican, his wife is Jewish and their kids go to a Protestant school. "We celebrate everything, even Ramadan," he says. His shows are rich with oral storytelling in the tradition of the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs. "It's fascinating that I'm going back to ancient things I had no idea I was tapping into," says Leguizamo, who has an Incan-symbol tattoo on his right arm.

He taps even deeper when he acts, says director Furman: "He has no fear about putting himself out there in a raw, unabridged way." As star of Furman's 2007 The Take, Leguizamo literally trashed the set during a scene in which the director challenged him to go for it, no holds barred. As requested, John "lost control emotionally. The pain was so deep it was evident," Furman recalls. "And as a result of being deep in the scene, he accidentally hurt himself performing — when he kicked a television."

But the most powerful scenes now playing out in Leguizamo's life are not on stage or screen. They're at home. "That's the big break in the cycle of things," he says. "I feel very close to my children. I'm a modern father, you know, one who changes diapers, feeds them, cooks for them. It's a much better life for a man to be connected with his children."

The Ghetto Klown has grown up.

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