Jimmy Smits, a Soon-to-Be Divorced Dad, Hopes the L.a. Law Lightning Will Strike Again on Film

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jimmy Smits and his family are sitting around what he playfully calls his "La-La Land" apartment, sampling his mother's authentic Puerto Rican cooking. As the pungent aroma of pasteles (plantain leaves stuffed with pork) fills the air, Jimmy's mama, Emelina—visiting from New York—is silent. "She's here," explains Jimmy, "to check out how I'm doing."

Well, Mama, he's doing great. On the L.A. Law season just ended, his role as Victor Sifuentes, the fiery, committed Latino attorney, had Smits edging into Harry Hamlin and Corbin Bernsen's territory as the lawyer with the sexiest courtside manner. Now he's on the big screen, playing an undercover cop opposite Martin Sheen in The Believers, a supernatural thriller directed by John (Midnight Cowboy) Schlesinger. "Jim has the most electrifying screen presence I have seen in years," raves Schlesinger. Making it on TV and in movies has promoted Smits into a role model for young Latinos, which he says is the "cherry on the cake."

Okay, Mama?

Sure, you still worry. But those rebellious teen years when Jimmy fathered his first child by a woman he didn't marry until five years later are behind him. He was 19 then, he's 31 now. "I was always committed to the responsibility of having a child," Smits says. "But I was too young to get married."

All right, Mama, nobody's perfect.

Smits, whose parents divorced when he was 18, considers himself Latino, though his father, Cornelis, a plant manager at a silk-screening company, was born in Dutch Guiana. He spent his "Wonder Bread years" (10 to 12) in Puerto Rico, but grew up in Brooklyn in a poor but respectable neighborhood. Smits and his wife are currently winding up what Jimmy calls a "Very amicable" divorce. There's no name calling or battling over the kids, Taina, 13, and Joaquin, 4. Says Smits: "I visit them in New York at least twice a month, and they've been to L.A. five times in the year since I've moved here."

Mama, you raised him well.

Okay, there is a new woman in his life. For about a year, says Smits, he's been dating actress Wanda De Jesus, who recently co-starred on Broadway with Robert De Niro in Cuba and His Teddy Bear. But neither party is yet talking marriage. "For people really consumed with their careers, it's not easy to form relationships," he says.

Smits does nothing to hide his ambition. He gave up his passion, playing football at Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School, so he'd have more time for acting. After studying drama at Brooklyn College, he went on to earn a graduate degree in theater arts in 1982 at Cornell. Steady work off-Broadway saved him from driving a cab for more than eight weeks. In 1984 he appeared in the pilot of Miami Vice, as Don Johnson's partner. He died on the show, paving the way for Philip Michael Thomas to become D.J.'s sidekick. "When Miami Vice started doing really well, I said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be nice to come back from the dead?' But I didn't do so bad with L.A. Law." Last year also saw his movie debut in the Gregory Hines-Billy Crystal comedy, Running Scared. In fact the only area of show business that was closed to him was commercials. He says, "I really wasn't right for the U.S. market."

His new success should change that. Indeed, Smits may be the most appealing Latin leading man since Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas were the hunks del dia. In the intervening years Latino actors were usually asked to play drug dealers (Smits' role in Running Scared) or lowlifes. But Sifuentes—and Smits—are the wave of the future. "We're alike in that Victor has gone to college and he's involved with a profession he's very good at," says Jimmy. "Certainly that's not something that's being explored a lot on television." The good times should continue for a while. Smits has been signed to a five-year contract on Law, at an estimated $15,000 per episode. "My accountant told me, 'I think your show is going to be around for a while, so maybe you should consider buying some furniture.' " Smits took the advice, picking up a new dinette set to replace his bridge table (which he banished to the patio outside his one-bedroom apartment). Says his pal Hamlin: "There is simply no pretense whatsoever to Jimmy."

Mama, you taught him modesty.

The producers of L.A. Law are out to change that. For most of last season, Sifuentes spent all his time acting noble in court. But then, Smits says, the producers realized "people prefer seeing him on the prowl with the opposite sex." In one of the last episodes, Sifuentes maneuvered his way into a sexy dentist's bed, only to have her floss his teeth. Obviously sympathetic, his female fans write him, offering considerably more than dental care.

Smits laughs off his new loverboy image. "That's acting," he says. "An actor thrives on being versatile." Smits, a Roman Catholic, says he does not use drugs or hard liquor himself, but would certainly not blanch at playing a character who does. He cautions against confusing him with the roles he performs. "I may play a villain," he says, "but that doesn't mean I'm turning my back on my morals."

Mama, are you listening?

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