A conversation with actor, director, and community activist Edward Olmos about his career and his presentation, “We’re All in the Same Gang,” at the annual Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture at ASU.
Jose Cardenas: Edward James Olmos an actor, and community activist, presented the Annual Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture at Gammage Auditorium. It was called "We're All in the Same Gang". I had the opportunity to talk to him about his lecture and his career. Edward James Olmos, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte". It's a pleasure to have you.
Edward James Olmos: It's an honor and privilege to be here.
Jose Cardenas: You are here to visit at ASU, you gave the Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture, what did you talk about?
Edward James Olmos: Oh, boy. It was an hour of -- more than an hour, an hour and a half of an extraordinary journey, just into an understanding of ourselves, cultural understanding of ourselves. We have the biggest problem we've ever had in this country, has been the lack of cultural understanding. We still, in our incredible plight to try to understand our educational systems, we still ignore the fact that we teach about 93 to 95%, depending on where are you in the country. Percent of the time we teach European-American studies. That's the contribution of the European to this country. We don't even give accumulatively the African-American, the Asian-American, the indigenous person, the Latino cultures, any kind of an understanding culturally to their contributions here. We talked a lot about them last night.
Jose Cardenas: You talk about recognizing the contributions that different cultures have made, and acknowledging them. But you also talked in your lecture about your own background, which is a mix of different cultures, and I think the subtext of your presentation was, we're all part of one gang.
Edward James Olmos: Well, yeah. Yes all part of one grouping. We're all part of the human race, period. And we talked extensively about the human race, and how difficult it is to really come together under the banner of the human race when there is the African race, the Caucasian race, the Latino race, the indigenous race. There's no such thing as a Latino race or African, or Caucasian, or indigenous races. There's only one race, it's the human race. And inside of that human race there are beautiful cultures. European cultures, African cultures, Latino cultures, Asian, and indigenous, and beautiful cultures. But the Irish are not like the English. You can ask them, they fought for 800 years plus, you know, they're blowing each other for a long time. The Guatemalan and the Mexican are not, you know, they're different cultures. Distinct different cultures.
Jose Cardenas: Your own background, Hungarian?
Edward James Olmos: Yeah, I'm Hungarian Jew. Didn't know that until 1980 when somebody turned to me and said, your name, it's a Hungarian name, Olmos. And I said, no, the elm tree. And he said, no, it's Hungarian, he who works with lead. The families, we usually take their last name from the things they did in the community back hundreds of years ago. The tailor became John the tailor became John Taylor. And the blacksmith became Frank the blacksmith, or Frank Smith. Names came about. So my name is Hungarian, and I found out that that portion was Jewish and fled Hungary during the inquisition, and the whole death of all the people that were Jewish in that community, and they went to Spain and became Christian, and then from that involvement they went to Mexico, and then my father was the only one of 14 that came to the United States.
Jose Cardenas: And your mother was Mexican-American.
Edward James Olmos: My mother was Mexican-American, my father was born and raised in Mexico. And my mother, the only reason we -- she was born here was because of the revolution. Her mother, the father of my grandmother, my mother's mother, was Enrica Flores, and his brother, they really -- a lot of the understanding of the Mexican revolution in 1910. They were the ones who coined the phrase. [SPEAKING SPANISH] Everybody used it because it was really, that what they were fighting for.
Jose Cardenas: Land and liberty.
Edward James Olmos: That's what they were -- what they ended up coining and they were the intellectuals that started more newspapers than Hearst did. And taught people how to use the printing press to get the word out.
Jose Cardenas: So your parents were in Los Angeles, they produced a son, whose first passion as I understand was baseball.
Edward James Olmos: Yeah.
Jose Cardenas: You were a batting champion.
Edward James Olmos: I really learned to play the game well from never having played the game before, I learned how to play very, very well. And at the age of 14 I was playing in California Sun League, which was a Single League Ball Club. But it was really the Winter League for the pros. So I was catching people like Eddie Roebuck and Sandy Koufax, and I was 13, 14 years old. And of course bobby went on to become the head coach of the Angels for many, many years. We played really good ball. I was really young, they were like five, six years, seven years older than I was. Most of the kids playing in that league were either pros or becoming next step was in the professional league. And this was winter ball. In the summer ball I played in the golden state league. And that was a state league, and I won the batting championship for a couple years in a row.
Jose Cardenas: You didn't pursue that career, not because of any injury or anything, but because you had an even greater love for rock and roll.
Edward James Olmos: Well, I got bit, 1960, rock and roll hit. I start listening to rock and roll about 1956, '55, on KFWB, back in the old days. And we were listening to, when the very first records start to come out, they started to bring out, you know, little Richard, and they were bringing out Little Richard and Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and -- Elvis, Elvis came out around '55, '56. This music was just -- going from listening to Pat Boone and that kind of -- Lawrence Welk kind of music, very orchestrated kind of "Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage". That kind of music, to "shake, rattle and roll", everybody went nuts. The kids loved it. The adults hated it. It was noise to them. But the kids found the rhythm are and pretty soon it was infectious. And pretty soon rhythm and blues took over along with country. Country Music and Rhythm and Blues put together gave us Rock and Roll, and man, it was fantastic.
Jose Cardenas: And had you your own band, you even record add record, but you ended up acting. And your first big break was "Zoot Suit" the play.
Edward James Olmos: I started working in front much people as an artist, a performing artist when I was 14. I left baseball, I'd play baseball, did I my music seven days a week. I was constantly did it. I performed for eight consecutive years on the sunset strip without ever taking a day off, for eight years. I put myself through high school and college performing. On the stages of Sunset Boulevard. I ended up at Gazari's, and went to the factory, which was a tremendous nightclub in the '60s and played there for over 2Â½ years. Seven days a week. We never took a break. Straight through, never wanted one. It was privilege to do it. People thought I was a little intense, but it was good. And it helped me today.
Jose Cardenas: Was that intensity, wasn't it what happened you get the role in "Zoot Suit".
Edward James Olmos: Yes, but it was a discipline. The discipline I learned by music and dancing, I was a dancer because of my father. My father was a dancer. And ended up becoming a dancer by way of just -- we would clean house, listening, dancing the mambo. He taught me to dance Swing, the Jitterbug. Tango. He wasn't a professional dancer, but his whole family danced. So it became an integral part -- we were always listening to music. And it was fantastic. Benny Goodman, like I said, every kind of music possible, we listened to.
Jose Cardenas: Your career focused on movies and acting --
Edward James Olmos: No, it ended up becoming that, but it was focused on music too. I wrote the music to my movies at this point. I wrote the music -- in my plays I write all the music. Music is an integral part of the art form, of theater and acting. If you don't have rhythm, if you don't have a sense of movement, then you become pretty stiff, and it becomes pretty difficult for you to feel relaxed. And music is the key. For me, to develop any character I must find its music first. And then I can find the music and I start listening to it and it starts driving me towards the character. And music, like I said, I went from music -- first from dancing, when I was 8, 9, 10, while I was playing baseball, I was dancing with my dad and learning how to dance, and movement, and music. Got into rock and roll, went from that into singing rock and roll and performing. I couldn't sing very well. I don't have a very good voice. My tone is a little off. But --
Jose Cardenas: I thought you were great just a moment ago.
Edward James Olmos: And then -- but I could move. Could I dance. I was a performer. I could -- like Bob Dylan, who came out in the early '60s, and did incredible writing, he was a great poet, genius with words, great song writer, but he couldn't sing either. He does haven't a very -- even though he laughs he can hit any note, he doesn't -- he can hit it, so he doesn't -- that's how he justifies his vocal tones. But he's a writer. And I was an entertainer, I was a dancer. So I would sing a little bit and then dance a lot. And then so the performances became why people came to see me. And hear me. And believe in that I was honest to the moment. I remember when I was working at the factory, we performed for not to name drop, but every single top artist performing artist and artist of the era, from '67 through -- '67, '68, all the way into '69. Went to that nightclub. And Judy Garland came in, and she was watching me perform, and she says, you're one of the most extraordinary performers I've ever seen in my life, and I was shocked. She was like -- she was very elderly then and she was in her last moments in life, and she just was so grateful. She said, man, I cannot believe it. And it was where we had taken the state of the art performance. We're very good at it, and then I went on to do the whole -- people weren't quite ready for this character, and it became one of the three definitive characters to rise on the American stage in the history of American theater.
Jose Cardenas: You received a Tony award for that role?
Edward James Olmos: M-hmm.
Jose Cardenas: You reprised the role in the movies and you went on to make several other famous movies, Blade Runner, the Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and you've got one coming out, but before that, during all this time, you're also very actively involved in the community. A range of activities. What was the first thing that major effort in this regard, and what led you to it?
Edward James Olmos: I was performing in an off, off, off L.A. theater, The Cellar, on Vermont. And I was about 20, 21 years old. And I was performing, and once opening night happened, and your parents came and all your friends came, that was it. That weekend was it. If you performed after that one weekend, nobody else came. It was just, you know, they call it brick and stick theater. In England that was coined where they give you a brick and a stick when you walk in the door. The stick was for the rats and the brick was for the cockroaches. When I was performing in one of those brick and stick theaters, in the audience one night came two persons in the audience, and we didn't know who they were, but they were sitting up on top. There was nobody else in the room. So we performed, and after it was over, one of them came down and it was a teacher. And she says, excuse me, but can I ask you a favor? And I said, sure, what is it? She said, can you come to my class? I teach at Roosevelt, I'd like to you come to my class and see if you could talk with the kids about what you do. And your work as a theater actor. And I said, well, I think you should go off and get -- I was just trying to figure out who I was. And I said, you should go and talk to these people, somebody that's successful. No, no, I don't want somebody that's successful. I want somebody that's struggling. Something that's right now going through that process, I need -- we need that. I said, well, OK. And I said, all right, and I went, and it was very uncomfortable. I was really outside of my element, the kids weren't even looking at us, and the teacher was asking questions from the back of the room and they were all Latino kids. And -- with attitudes and nobody was really -- I was not much older than they were, so they weren't paying much attention. So the bell rang and they left. And I tried, but I really felt, you know, nothing worked. But I said thank you, and they left, I went back to work. That night I performed and that night something very interesting happened on the stage. I felt much more inside of what I was doing. And I didn't know why. And I asked the other members of the -- there was nobody in the audience. I said, how did you feel tonight? What are you talking about? I said, was there anything fresh and new that you guys felt with the play? No. OK. So I didn't say any more. I felt something, but I didn't say any more. The other lady called me about a week later and said, excuse me, what you did at our school, can you come and do it in my class? And I said, yeah. I will. Now, this time I knew the environment, so I said, OK, I'm going to go, but I'm going to go and it's going to be my domain. I'm going to really understand the situation and I'm going to perform there. And really own the space, like I do in theater. And I said, OK. And so I went there and I didn't -- I told the teacher, don't ask me one question. And I got up there and I said to everybody, you know, who I was, where I came from, and I started just to talk. And I didn't give them a chance to ask any questions. But I started to grab their attention. I saw the eyes starting to lift up because of the stuff I was talking about. My struggle, the whole thing. But it wasn't like nurtured by somebody. It was just me talking. And at the end, you know, they got up and left, the whole thing happened, and it was a much easier -- I felt comfortable, I felt like I had really owned the situation, and I felt good. I left that day and I went to work that night, and the same thing happened. The same thing happened that happened the week before that I felt a sense of reality base more, my truths were better, something was going on, my moment-to-moment was connected. And I said, wow, this is interesting. I bet you had to do -- it had to do with what I did this morning.
Jose Cardenas: Was there a connection between those experiences and your most famous role in "Stand and Deliver"?
Edward James Olmos: I was very grateful, I was lucky to me lucky is when preparation meets opportunity. That's luck. When preparation meets the opportunity and you connect, and I was prepared. I was prepared for -- I was doing Miami Vice at the time. I was working every day. And I really had grown a lot as an artist, and then I found in 1983, we received the NAACP's award for Humanitarian of the Year, and this was 1983. The year he did the first time that the kids pass the first test, and this was in June. And they had passed in May, and the world was just incredible, and everybody was so happy, and so he was -- inner city school teacher does great. And of course one month later after we had gotten that award, that's when they were accused of cheating. And the world came down on him even harder than they had ever gotten down on anybody. It was -- we had -- if from one to 10 when the world learned that they had done this, they were at a five. But when the press got a hold of them on the -- when they were going down, when they called them cheaters, it went to a 10. Everybody on the planet knew this had happened, and it was terrible. Because one moment the barrio was up and the next moment they were dragged down to the bottom of the pit. The next test was harder than the first, and they took it and they passed it.
Jose Cardenas: The results vindicated --
Edward James Olmos: Everybody. But really that's -- that process, then I went to him and I said, listen, we've got to do this story. And we've got to put it on film. And we gave him a dollar, for his rights. We didn't have anything. We went around and we went to -- we finally, PBS gave us -- American Playhouse gave us the starting funds.
Jose Cardenas: Speaking of PBS, I want to cover just a few of your other activities. Then wrap up by coming back to the lecture and some of the post-lecture discussions you had. On issues of particular moments in Arizona. But you have your own PBS production company? Is that right?
Edward James Olmos: Latino Public Broadcasting. I started it about 12 years ago. 13 years ago. We help -- it's an offshoot of a consortium that we started back around 30 years ago. The consortium was really a mandate that was put forth that the African-Americans, the south Pacific Islanders, the indigenous, the Latino would have the Asian cultures would have access to the airwaves. And so they funded these consortiums and ours was the first one created. And then so we started Latino public broadcasting, and we've been able to produce this year alone, year 2010, we've produced 20 hours of project, of product that will be placed on PBS, throughout the country. And they're around the world, because they end up having these incredible pieces of work, which I think are fantastic. We're only supposed to do three hours, but I think we've created probably more product that's ever been created for Latinos in the history of television.
Jose Cardenas: Coming back to the Latino -- you didn't come to Arizona to talk about SB 1070, you didn't come to talk about immigration issues, but in the Q and A that followed, that topic came up.
Edward James Olmos: Oh, yeah. I came here to talk about the humanity, and the unification of us. Like I said before, we -- there's only one race. It's the Latino -- the human race, and there's no Latino race or -- we have been for the last 600 years, using the word race as a cultural determinant. And it's been really sad for us as human beings, because race became a divisionary word. It divided us amongst different races. But there's -- the word "race" is -- only can be used on the concept of one race. That's only one race. And inside that race, there are cultures, but there's not a Caucasian race. It's the human race.
Jose Cardenas: So did you --
Edward James Olmos: Let me say something really quick. The human race, the word "race" is a unifying word. It unifies us. As soon as -- 600 years ago they started to use the word race so it would be easier for to us kill each other. That was the single, only reason that the word "race" became a divisive word. So that we could kill each other easier, because you don't want to kill your own race. And that is so important, and that's why I had to stop you and tell you, that's what went on, and I came here to unify all of us under the understanding that we are one race. We're all human beings.
Jose Cardenas: From our discussion off camera, that message seemed to resonate with your audience, but when you started talking about SB 1070, there seemed to be more division, more tension on that specific subjects.
Edward James Olmos: On the subject of race or the subject of --
Jose Cardenas: Immigration and SB 1070.
Edward James Olmos: Well, SB 1070, everybody has their own feelings about it. The people who think that it's necessary are the ones who are trying to implement people who don't think that it's -- it's unconstitutional don't want it to be even around. The only way that -- we don't need more laws. What we need to do is enforce the laws we have, period. What I say, if you're going to use a 1070 law here, let's make it for everybody. Let's make the 1070 law meaning that everybody has to carry their citizenship papers everywhere they go in the United States of America. Everybody. Granted, we have immigration laws. You, can not come here without us having a quota because we -- the whole world would want to come here. I got that. I got it really well. But why are they coming here? That's the problem. Why are they coming here? Two reasons, it's a first world nation, and two, because they can't survive where they are coming from. So as far as I'm concerned, we have to make Mexico a first world nation, so they don't have come here because it's a first world nation, and two, we have to make sure Mexico takes on the responsibility of understanding for the Mexicans that have to come here that they need to produce - but see Mexico is the problem. Mexico is the real problem. And it's one that I constantly look at with them. And say to them, why -- aren't you embarrassed that we have to come and go someplace and leave our homes and leave our families and try to advance ourselves somewhere else because we can't do it here? Doesn't that embarrass you? I tell the President, I say, what are you doing? Why are we doing this? Why can't we take care of our own?
Jose Cardenas: And I know you've had personal discussions with Mexican Presidents and it would be wonderful if we had time to get into that. I hope that next time you're in Phoenix we'll have time to discuss your life, your career, your commitment to the community. For now we have to wrap this up. Edward James Olmos, thank you so much for joining us.
Edward James Olmos: Thank you very much.
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