The Latino Lawyer Who Revolutionized Television
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even television lawyers can win landmark victories.
By Sean Braswell
It’s clear from Victor Sifuentes’ very first scene that the hit 1980s legal drama L.A. Law was prepared to take its audience into uncharted, and occasionally uncomfortable, television territory. Sifuentes, played by a 31-year-old Puerto Rican actor from Brooklyn named Jimmy Smits, is at a police precinct pressing a sergeant to give him access to his client but refusing to be frisked beforehand. “You lay a hand on me and I’m gonna kick your fat butt,” he warns the pudgy officer, who proceeds to escort him from the premises after derisively calling the public defender “José” and “Pancho freakin’ Villa.” Sifuentes, the shrewd, doe-eyed TV lawyer that he is, later exploits the racially charged run-in to get the case dismissed because his client had been denied his constitutional right to speak with counsel.
L.A. Law was responsible for a lot of television firsts: first prime-time lesbian kiss, first show to kill off a character via elevator shaft and first show to plumb the personal lives of its attorney characters (Perry Mason’s creator considered his private life largely irrelevant). It was also the first hit American drama to cast a Latino actor in a central, multidimensional role.
Countless Latino attorneys … were inspired by Sifuentes to go to law school.
At first glance, Sifuentes, a sexy Casanova (one of several on the show) whose hot temper gets him into trouble, plays right into long-standing Latino stereotypes. But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is much more to the passionate, principled attorney. Over the course of the show, the character exposes viewers not only to issues of social justice and the challenges of proving oneself in a white-male-dominated workplace (Sifuentes initially refuses the job because he doesn’t want to be “the Mexican gardener picking up the snails”) but also to the internal struggles of a former public defender who has elected to take a more lucrative job at a private law firm.
Smits, a classically trained actor with a graduate degree from Cornell, was perfect for the role — even if he almost blew it. After a disastrous audition before NBC executives in New York City, Smits flew to Los Angeles to audition again before the show’s developers. It was a key moment for Smits, who had appeared as Don Johnson’s partner in the pilot of Miami Vice (before being killed off to make room for Philip Michael Thomas) but for whom L.A. Law represented his first substantial TV role. He nailed the second audition — much to the good fortune of L.A. Law, as it turned out, because Smits would be nominated for an Emmy all five years he was on the show (he won in 1990).
Along with the traditional hardware, Smits and the series received recognition and a host of other awards for their contribution to improving the image of Latinos in the media. “We’re alike in that Victor has gone to college and he’s involved with a profession he’s very good at,” Smits said of his character’s significance in a 1987 issue of People magazine. “Certainly that’s not something that’s being explored a lot on television.”
Nor was it something the producers of the show had intended. “I understand why it’s important to Hispanics, but it isn’t that important to us,” L.A. Law’s producer and co-creator Steven Bochco told the Los Angeles Times after the series’ first season. “We don’t hang a flag on [Sifuentes’] ethnicity … I think the best way to combat racism is to not make an issue of the fact that he’s Hispanic.”
Perhaps, but Sifuentes’ presence was still a big deal to many viewers. Countless Latino attorneys, as Smits reflected last year, have told the actor over the years that they were inspired by Sifuentes to attend law school. The role also launched Smits’ career, which has included roles in other seminal TV shows, including NYPD Blue, The West Wing and Dexter, and in two Star Wars films. And his role advancing the cause of Latinos in the media didn’t stop when he left L.A. Law following its fifth season. In 1997, Smits co-founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to help promote Latinos both in front of and behind the camera — and to ensure more Victors would have opportunities to entertain and educate audiences.
“There are no right and wrong ways to work in this business,” Smits once said, “but there are some basic commonsense practices. Work very, very hard … never give up; and once you get the job, give them more than they ever expected.” Beyond a reasonable doubt.