One of the most curious sights captured by TV news cameras during the 1992 Los Angeles riots was that of actor Edward James Olmos standing on West Adams Boulevard, near the First AME Church, holding a broom. It was Friday morning, the day that Governor Pete Wilson would ask for federal assistance to help restore order and Rodney King would ask if we all could get along. Olmos had spent much of the preceding 36 hours on the go, shuttling between TV and radio appearances, imploring listeners to stay in their homes. “If you’re going to go out and get something because you can,” he remembers saying, “at least come back to your house once you’ve got what you want.” Then, as the sun rose on day three of the violence, he started sweeping.
“It was so stupid,” Olmos says 15 years later as we sit in his office at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, a 12-week-old Labrador puppy playing at his feet. His voice is calm, his gaze steady and intense. “I was standing in all this mud and water and trash. I was pushing dirt onto dirt. Then I looked over and I saw this elderly African-American lady standing in the doorway of her house. She sees me sweeping, and then she slams the door. But a few minutes later, she comes back out, and she starts to sweep the sidewalk in front of her house.” Moments after that, a passing KCAL crew stopped to see what Olmos was up to.
“Do you think it’s going to do any good?” they asked.
“At this point, I have no idea what is good and what is bad anymore,” he replied.
As it happens, Olmos’ impromptu actions did more good than he could have imagined. As the strange sight of the actor in cleanup mode hit the airwaves, other volunteer janitors began to appear on the scene, including a contingent of inner-city teens from the Community Youth Gang Services Project.
“Suddenly, there were 30 of us, and then there were 50,” Olmos says. “We started moving down Normandie. You could see kids running and gunfire going off. It didn’t mean that the Koreans and the blacks weren’t still killing each other over on Olympic. But by 8 o’clock, there were at least 400 of us, and by 10, there were 800 of us, like a mass of ants. It was an incredible feeling of power and strength. It was a bunch of people with brooms taking the city back.”
Talk with Olmos for a while and, invariably, the discussion returns to the streets of L.A. — certain particular streets, like the colorful block in Boyle Heights where he was born in 1947 to Mexican immigrant parents and spent most of his youth. Long before the word “multiculturalism” had entered the pop-culture lexicon, Olmos found himself growing up next door to a Navajo family, across the street from a Japanese family and a few doors down from “a Russian Orthodox family that dressed constantly in all white, like Cossacks, and who had white hair and very beautiful white skin. And next door to them was an African-American family. They shared the same driveway.”
Then there were the streets that carried the boy Eddie westward, to bustling downtown L.A. and beyond, via the Pacific Electric Railway’s late streetcar line. “You could go all the way to the Santa Monica Pier for a nickel,” Olmos remembers. “It would take you four or five hours to get there, but it was fantastic. It was so civilized, so beautiful, so innocent, so exactly what you’d think it would’ve been like. You were like a tourist in your own city. And then the rubber companies and the car companies got rid of all that — they really sold us a bad bill of goods.”
There is one more street that figures prominently in Olmos’ memories: Matilija Avenue in Sherman Oaks, where he lived throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, during his stint as the bell-bottomed front man of the rock quartet Eddie James and the Pacific Ocean.
“My house was right across the street from Delaney Bramlett’s,” Olmos says of the legendary L.A. session musician whose group, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, featured a veritable roll call of the era’s most influential musical talents. “On the corner was [Derek and the Dominos bass player] Carl Radle. Next to him was Indian Ed Davis, who played with Taj Mahal. Also on that block was the Stone Canyon Band — the entire band. Jim Gordon wrote ‘Layla’ on my piano. All these brilliant musicians were living within a two-block radius.” But, says Olmos, they didn’t think of themselves that way. “We were just a group of kids playing our music.”
By day, Olmos put himself through college. By night, he gigged in bygone Sunset Strip haunts with names like the Galaxy, Gazzari’s (where, for a while, the Pacific Ocean was the house band) and Pandora’s Box, while young people drunk on music and the new social freedoms spilled out into the street.
“You couldn’t even drive a car down Sunset between Doheny and San Vicente. There were thousands of kids walking that street and standing around, every night, for years. It was fantastic. From ’64 to ’69, especially, it was like ‘Whoa, what a trip.’
“And then,” he says, looking off into the distance, “drugs really took over. By the time I was 27 years old, I had lost most of my friends to drug overdoses, including Jim Morrison, who used to come and watch us perform. It was a great era, but a lot of kids died too young.”
As a singer, Olmos says, he could never really carry a tune. “But onstage, I was a theatrical event. I was a performer, and to be a good performer, who felt every single word that he was singing, was to become a good actor. It’s harder to sing a song than it is to say some lines in a play.”
So, by the mid-1970s, he began to act in theater, on television and in the odd movie, before landing his breakthrough role in the Mark Taper Forum’s 1979 production of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. It was, fittingly, a play with deep roots in Los Angeles history — specifically, the 1942 murder trial of 22 Mexican-American youths that ultimately led to its own series of L.A. riots, 50 years before Rodney King. For Olmos, the part of El Pachuco, the show’s grandiloquent master of ceremonies, remains a career high. “It was singing, dancing, drama, comedy. It was everything I had ever done or could ever want to do, and I did it all with one character.”
Originally, Zoot Suit was supposed to run for only 14 performances. In 1981, Olmos was still playing El Pachuco, in a Valdez-directed film adaptation, having taken the show to Broadway (where he was nominated for a Tony award) in between. But he wasn’t about to be typecast: That same year, he appeared as a Native American in the horror movie Wolfen, followed by his memorable turn as the Hungarian detective, Gaff, in Blade Runner. From one part to the next, Olmos seemed able to change his voice, his face and his posture as the occasion demanded — a talent the actor chalks up to his lifelong admiration for an earlier screen chameleon: Paul Muni.
“Like Lon Chaney, he was a man of a thousand faces,” Olmos enthuses. “He played Benito Juárez and just blew me away. He played Scarface and just completely convinced the world that he was the worst person on this planet. He played a Chinese man in The Good Earth. This guy was just amazing. So, I really aimed for that.”
At 60, Olmos is best known for his Emmy-winning role as Lieutenant Martin Castillo in the hit 1980s series Miami Vice, his Oscar-nominated turn as Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante in 1988’s Stand and Deliver and his continuing role as Admiral Adama on cable’s Battlestar Galactica. He has directed too, last year earning a Directors Guild award nomination for his HBO movie Walkout, about the historic 1968 protest organized by 10,000 disenfranchised Mexican-American students at five East L.A. high schools. And he is the founder of two local arts festivals: the Latino Book & Family Festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, each held annually in October. For the most part, those have been passion projects, driven by Olmos’ love of the work rather than his lust for fortune. Not that he’d have it any other way.
“I have a lot of security in my own sensibilities, because there’s no security in our business,” he says with an air of quiet contentment all too rarely encountered in the Hollywood bubble. “You have to build it within yourself. If you’re trying to be the wealthiest, or the best . . . that’s great, but eventually you’re going to be alone, or you’ll find yourself with a very hard, cold heart for humanity. When I leave, I know that I won’t have anything left — I will have given all that I have to give.”