Childhood & Early Life
Jimmy Smits was born on July 9, 1955, in Brooklyn, New York in the US as the eldest child and only son of Cornelis Leendert Smits and Emilina (née Pola). His father was of Dutch descent and came from Paramaribo, Surinam, managed a silk-screening factory while his mother was a Puerto Rican.
He and his two sisters, Yvonne and Diana were brought up mainly in Brooklyn in a working class neighborhood by his family who were devoted Roman Catholics. As a child he also spent time in Puerto Rico; he identifies himself as a Puerto Rican and visits the place frequently.
He studied and graduated from ‘Thomas Jefferson High School’ in Brooklyn where he also remained active both as an athlete and as an actor.
While in teens he developed a keen interest in acting that eventually saw him quitting his school’s football team so as to dedicate his time more on plays and musicals of the school. In 1980 he obtained his bachelor's degree from ‘Brooklyn College’.
He then attended ‘Cornell University’ from where he earned ‘Master of Fine Arts’ in 1982.
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He toured across the US during early 1980s performing in off-Broadway and repertory productions and eventually earned great appreciation. Some of the plays he worked included ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Loose Ends’ (both in 1982). With time he started getting part roles in big screen flicks as well as TV productions.
One of his early roles, small yet notable, was that of Eddie Rivera, the ill-fated partner of detective James "Sonny" Crockett portrayed by Don Johnson in the American television crime drama series ‘Miami Vice’. His part featured only in the two-hour premiere of the series in 1984.
In 1986 he landed up with a supporting role of Julio Gonzales, a drug dealer in the action-comedy flick ‘Running Scared’.
The role that gave him real breakthrough, name and recognition was that of attorney Victor Sifuentes in the television legal drama series ‘L.A. Law’. The weekly series that ran on NBC for 8 seasons starting from September 15, 1986 was both a critical and commercial success.
He regularly performed in the first 5 of 8 seasons of ‘L.A. Law’ and then made guest appearances in the 6th season featuring in overall 107 episodes of the series. His brilliant performance earned him the prestigious ‘Primetime Emmy Awards’ for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series’ in 1990.
Meanwhile he worked in several TV projects including movies like ‘The Highwayman’ (1987) and series like ‘Pee-wee's Playhouse’ (1989) as also in big screen flicks like ‘The Believers’ (1987) and ‘Old Gringo (1989). The latter saw him sharing screen space with Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.
In pursuit of focusing more on film career he quit ‘L.A. Law’ in 1991, but made guest appearances. However after playing leading roles in the 1991 films ‘Switch’ and ‘Fires Within’ which garnered little success, he came back to television in the following year with the documentary ‘The Broken Cord’.
He played Jim "Gard" Gardner, one of the two lead roles in Stephen King's ‘The Tommyknockers’ that released on May 9, 1993, marking his debut in television miniseries.
In 1994 he landed up the role of Detective Bobby Simone in the police procedural drama television series ‘NYPD Blue’ and executed it regularly till 1998 starting from the 2nd to the 6th season and then guest appeared in the 12th one thus covering 90 episodes.
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While doing ‘NYPD Blue’ he worked in big screen projects like ‘The Family’ (1995) and ‘Murder in Mind’ (1997), TV movies like ‘The Cisco Kid’ (1994) and TV series like ‘Happily Ever After’ (1995, 1997).
The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) presented him the HOLA Award for Excellence in 1999.
Year 2000 saw him coming up with big screen flicks like ‘Adventures in Wild California’, ‘Price of Glory’, ‘The Million Dollar Hotel’ and ‘Bless the Child’.
Smits was arrested in 2001 for taking part in protests against bombing practices by the US Navy on Vieques, an island–municipality of Puerto Rico.
While juggling with big and small screen roles he fanned his theatrical passion as and when possible. His onstage performances in the early 2000s included playing Duke Orsino in ‘Twelfth Night’ (2002) and Benedick in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (2004).
Smits landed up playing Senator Bail Organa in ‘Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’, the second instalment of Star Wars prequel trilogy that released on May 16, 2002. He then reprised the role in ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith’ (2005) and ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (2016).
In 2004 he took up essaying the role of Matt Santos in the serial political drama TV series, ‘The West Wing’. Working in the last two seasons of the series till 2006, he featured in 37 episodes and won the ‘ALMA Awards’ for ‘Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series’ in 2006.
Moving forward he did several other TV series like ‘Cane’ (2007), ‘Dexter’ (2008), ‘Outlaw’ (2010) and ‘Son of Anarchy’ (2012 – 2014); and films ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ (2007) and ‘Mother and Child’ (2010).
He was part of Broadway play ‘God of Carnage’ from November 2009 to February 2010 and in ‘The Motherfucker with the Hat’ from December 2012 to March 2013.
Presently he features as Francisco "Papa Fuerte" Cruz in the musical drama television series, ‘The Get Down’ (since 2016) and as John Donovan in the television series ‘24: Legacy’, a spin-off of the 2014 action thriller television series ‘24’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to Barbara, his high school love from 1981 to 1987. He has two children with Barbara; a daughter Taina born in 1973 and a son, Joaquin born in 1983.
Presently he lives with actress Wanda De Jesus with whom he is romantically associated since 1986.
He is quite committed to the Latino community. He co-founded ‘The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts’ in 1997 that aims at promoting Hispanic talents. His work for the community saw him being honoured with the ‘Ackerman Leadership Award’ in 2015.