It was almost over before it began. In 1984, Jimmy Smits snagged the role of Sonny Crockett’s partner in a promising new series named “Miami Vice” — only to be killed off in the premiere’s opening moments.
While his replacement, Philip Michael Thomas, would go on to provide voice-overs for “Grand Theft Auto,” Smits became one of the most reliable leading men on television, almost always slipping into the skin of tough, sensitive role models: the ethically righteous Victor Sifuentes in “L.A. Law”; Detective Bobby Simone, the angel to Andy Sipowicz’s demons on “NYPD Blue”; the honorable presidential hopeful on “The West Wing.”
But lately, Smits appears less interested in playing the most wholesome hunk in town.
In one season of “Dexter,” he portrayed an assistant district attorney who develops a taste for blood. Now he’s wrapping up the final season of “Sons of Anarchy” as Nero Padilla, a high-powered pimp who may or may not be trying to get out of the crime business.
We talked to the 59-year-old actor by phone recently about his walks on the wilder side, the level of violence on TV and whether or not we’ll ever see his former “NYPD” partner Dennis Franz again.
Q: In preparing for this interview, I watched 15 straight episodes of “Sons of Anarchy.” Do you think that’s healthy?
A: Wow, I don’t think so. Everything in moderation, like calories.
Q: Are you surprised that Nero is still alive?
A: Actually, I am. I was originally supposed to do just 10 episodes, very much like I did with “Dexter.” That sounded good to me. I liked the fluidity of it. Plus, it gives me a chance to play characters I’m not normally seen doing. I get to stretch a little bit. Not that I wouldn’t be a leading man again. I don’t mind the work.
Q: When you were doing “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue,” were you deliberately trying to show that Hispanic actors don’t always have to be the gangster? Did you feel a responsibility to play noble characters?
A: Not necessarily. I did relish the fact that those characters satisfied a dearth of what was happening on the TV landscape. And it was very gratifying to get on a plane and have someone tell me that the amount of Hispanic students going into law school had gone up exponentially because of the show. But that was part of the landscape of those series and it was about exercising certain muscles.
Q: Do you feel at this point in your career you can play darker characters? Would you want to play an out-and-out villain?
A: I’d probably sign up for something like that, but for a very short term. Energywise, it takes a toll on you.
Q: Both “Dexter” and “Sons of Anarchy” are very brutal shows. Are you OK with the level of violence on TV?
A: Not always. When I sit down and sign up for something, I vet where the people are coming from. There are a couple of shows I wouldn’t do that are just about T&A and guns and stuff. I think the people involved on “Anarchy” have a larger agenda and are looking at a broader landscape.
Q: Creator Kurt Sutter has certainly been vocal about the fact that “Anarchy” has gotten almost no attention from the Emmys. ...
A: I think Kurt’s toned it down. It’s a realization on his part that you’ve just got to do your work and let it stand for itself. There are so many things in the cooker when it comes to stuff like that. I do know industry people watch the show. It’s got a real loyal fan base.
Q: You’ve only got a handful of episodes left to shoot, but I can’t imagine that it’s the most sentimental cast.
A: You’d be surprised. Sentiments are running high. People are starting to realize it’s almost over.
Q: Hey, whatever happened to Dennis Franz? He kind of disappeared.
A: He’s very happy chilling. He’s playing golf, loving spending time with his grandchildren, doing a lot of traveling. I see him when he comes to New York to see shows. I think he’s waiting for the next thing. He still has a lot of gas left in his tank.
Q: Maybe you can get him to guest star on “Anarchy.” I’d love to see him on a bike.
A: Hey, first thing I did when I got this gig was go out and get my motorcycle license. But Kurt said it’s not going to happen. I’ve got to stick to my lowrider. But I’d love to get on a bike before it’s over, even if it’s Chucky’s Vespa.
Q: Well, best of luck with that and the rest of the season.
A: Thank you. And sorry about putting you through that bingeing. You should probably take a sensitivity class.