It may seem like a lifetime achievement award is the last hurrah before an artist fades into our collective memory as one of yesterday’s greats, but in the case of 53-year-old Esai Morales, who received such an award this month from the Arpa Foundation for Film, it seems more like a recognition that a 30-year career makes him a seasoned veteran in this brave new world of J. Laws and Zac Efrons. Of course, we all first encountered his stony gaze and voluminous coif back in 1987 when he starred across Lou Diamond Phillips as a frustrated, wannabe cartoonist living in the shadow of his larger-than-life half brother Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. But in truth, Morales’ career kicked off years earlier with appearances in 1982’s Forty Deuce and 1983’s Bad Boys (no, not the Will Smith joint).
Since then, this Brooklyn Boricua has made an enviable career for himself on the big and small screens, with more credits to his name than years on this earth. As a testament to his talent, he’s gone well beyond the stereotypical Latino roles, playing everything from intergalactic commanders to besieged shopkeepers, and became one of the most visible Latino faces in Hollywood throughout the 1990s. To boot, he’s stayed true to his roots as the son of an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and declared himself an “actorvist,” parlaying his fame into vocal support for causes ranging from environmental issues to the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
To piggyback on his recent Lifetime Achievement honors, we’ve decided to take a look back at the prolific career of one of the United States’ most visible Latinos. Here’s to many more prolific years to come from Mr. Esai Manuel Morales, Jr.
Director: Rick Rosenthal
As a young actor, you take what you can get, which means a lot of Latino thesps kicked off their big screen careers playing some variation of the juvenile delinquent rapist trope. And that’s exactly what Morales played in Rick Rosenthal’s Bad Boys. The delinquent in question here is a fellow named Paco Moreno, who seeks revenge on an Irish-American ruffian played by Sean Penn after he runs over his brother in a botched getaway. This revenge involves raping his girlfriend and challenging him to a deadly prison fight. Luckily for Morales, Bad Boys was able to rise above its grisly content and garnered critical praise for its performances. More importantly, it’s credited with launching the career of a then 22-year-old Sean Penn.
Director: Luis Valdez
La Bamba needs absolutely no introduction around here. The tragic true story of Ritchie Valens’ meteoric rise and untimely fall has emerged as a classic for both Latinos and mainstream audiences alike. And who could forget Esai’s turn as Valens’ tortured half-brother Bob Morales? His bad boy gait and violent streak was the yin to Lou Diamond Phillips’ yang, but the brilliance of his performance was stuffing the soul of a sensitive artist somewhere deep down below all the posturing.
Director: Gregory Nava
After Nava had a critical bomb in the form of 1988’s A Time of Destiny, the much-lauded director of El Norte found his footing once again with this story of a multi-generational Mexican-American family that starred some of the greatest Latino actors of our time. Morales once again plays the tortured, delinquent brother named Chucho, who gets in over his head after a deadly knife fight. Stellar performances from Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, and even an uncredited role by Jennifer Lopez earned My Family solid critical accolades alongside a decent box office draw.
In addition to his long list of film credits, Morales has also had a handful of roles on some of television’s most storied franchises. Perhaps his most visible role of the 2000s, Morales played Lt. Tony Rodriguez on 48 episodes of the classic police procedural, NYPD Blue. Rodriguez is a narcotics undercover cop who moves in to the 15th precinct as squad commander only to invoke the ire and mistrust of the beloved Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz. The series was Morales’ first turn as a television series regular after a litany of guest starring roles.
After frequent collaborator Jimmy Smits had the pleasure of playing the U.S.’ first fictional Latino president on The West Wing, Morales responded in kind by playing President Julian Navarro in Roberto Benabib’s HBO political satire, The Brink. Following the zany antics of a foreign service officer played by Jack Black and a Secretary of State played by Tim Robbins, The Brink’s all-star cast and irreverent vision of a world on the brink of chaos didn’t quite convince critics, and the show was not picked up for a second season after initially receiving an offer from HBO.