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Hector Elizondo: In His Stride

Sure, he dances. But in love and life, his feet are firmly planted on the ground.

En español |  There’s more than one reason to call Hector Elizondo a character actor. There’s his role as the flinty hotel manager with a soft spot for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. And legions of 10-year-olds call him Joe, the clever head of security in The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries II.

But he’s also an actor with character. No hilltop mansion, swimming pool, or fancy cars for this Emmy-Award winner. Elizondo, 70, isn’t blinded by what he calls “bells and whistles.”

“What I do have,” he says, “are good friends and my sense of wonder, that ‘What is my place in this world?’ ”

In embracing his place in the artistic world, he lives by the credo that art must be done for art’s sake.

“If I had to choose, I would do only stage and radio,” says Elizondo, who in 1974 helped found L.A. Theatre Works, a company that produces audio versions of plays. Yet he has nearly 100 movies to his credit.

Elizondo met director Garry Marshall in the 1980s, and the two developed a tight friendship. Marshall has called Elizondo his “lucky charm.”

“Hector is the most reliable and versatile actor I’ve had the pleasure of doing 15 films (and some plays) with,” says Marshall.

Elizondo has appeared in The Celestine Prophecy, Runaway Bride, and Tortilla Soup. He starred in Chicago Hope, for which he won the 1997 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series, and appeared in episodes of The West Wing, Kojak, and other hit television shows.

When it comes to movies, he says, “I love movies, but they don’t pay me to work; they pay me to wait.” He most recently waited inside a trailer in Cartagena, Colombia, between takes for his role as Don Leo in an upcoming film version of Love in the Time of Cholera, based on Gabriel García Márquez’s novel. The movie features Javier Bardem in the lead role of the love-stricken Florentino, who waits five decades for the chance to be with the woman of his dreams.

Can there be such unwavering love? Or do you call it plain old obsession?

Psychological issues definitely plague Florentino, says Elizondo, who plays the wealthy, eccentric, but loving uncle. “The character I play is nonjudgmental about his nephew,” he says. “In fact, he is somewhat delighted that insanity runs in the family.”

The actor explains: “Sometimes insanity can lead to creativity. Great artists are people who are great adventurers, people who won’t take no for an answer. There is good insane and bad insane, I suppose.”

But insane love is something Elizondo doesn’t put much faith in. He has been with the same woman, a book artist and publisher, for 38 years.

“Romantic love is a relatively new concept in human history.…We have exploited it and raised the bar unrealistically. After the bells and whistles are over, what’s left over, that’s the important stuff. Most people believe the bells and whistles are it, and when that’s gone, well, it leads to disillusionment, and disillusionment leads to spiritual crankiness and emptiness.”

Which is why Elizondo doesn’t buy into what he sees as Valentine’s Day commercialism. He and his wife have a successful relationship, Elizondo says, because they don’t just go through the motions.

“When somebody says, ‘I have to talk,’ when they’re hurting, when there’s an emergency, that’s when you have to be there and that’s when a relationship works,” he says. “We respect and admire each other, but we have our own lives. That’s the other thing: you can’t listen to other people about what’s supposed to work.” But isn’t his take on long-lasting love too prosaic?

“If you love life, it’s romantic. If you look at birds and wonder how they live, that’s romantic,” he says. “Romantic is being in a state of wonder, gratitude, generosity, and being kind to one another.”

In his work life, his mission as an actor has been to retain real character in a world that rarely rewards it. “I never wanted to play stereotypes. And I was fortunate that I didn’t have to. I have stayed away from a lot of Latino roles. To the Latin characters I did play, I hope I brought dignity,” says Elizondo, who was born in Harlem, in New York City, to Puerto Rican parents.

He also never went looking for fame.

“A lot of kids ask me, ‘How do you become an actor?’ They’re really asking, ‘How do you become a star?’ I tell them you have to start studying, do repertoire theater, spend eight hours rehearsing every day, and go out there and work on the stage every night. Do it for very little money. By now their eyes are glazing over. You have to study voice and movement. You have to do the serious work so that all of a sudden you can say, ‘My God, I’ve had a 42-year career.’ ”

That’s not a bad place to be in this world, after all.