A Bright New Diamond Brings a Fading Legend to Life in La Bamba

updated 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His name, Lou Diamond Phillips, takes up as much room on a marquee as Cher, Benji and Tom Hanks combined—an oddity worth noting since Phillips may soon be generating more heat than all three. The 25-year-old actor beat out 500 contenders to play Ritchie Valens, the young Chicano rock 'n' roller from L.A. who, in eight short months in 1958-59, became a sensation by making three hit records (Come On, Let's Go; Donna and La Bamba), only to die in the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly and the Big Bop-per as well. Valens' brief life is portrayed in the new film La Bamba. What qualifies Phillips to star, says the movie's director, Luis (Zoot Suit) Valdez, is his "capacity to connect directly from soul to soul through his eyes. Lou has the face of the future."

Make it the face of the present. Of Philippine, Hispanic, Hawaiian and Cherokee descent, Phillips possesses dark, exotic features. He is an intense young man who rarely smiles and who always wears a shimmering gold-and-diamond cross around his neck. It's not for show. Though not a member of any religious denomination, Phillips calls himself a fiercely spiritual person. He says he despises actors who indulge in such unchristian activities as "punching out extras on sets or getting drunk in public" and opts instead for role models like Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney. "God has blessed me," says Phillips. "I think God has had a hand in the way my life has gone because I've been incredibly lucky."

An only child, Phillips was born in the Philippines. His father, Gerald Up-church, died when Lou was 2. After his mother, Lucy, married a naval officer, George Phillips, in 1964, Lou led a peripatetic military childhood, living in Georgia, Washington, D.C., California and Texas. "Since I didn't have brothers and sisters, I was forced to make new friends and become an extrovert," he says. His passion for acting began in elementary school, when he would write skits and perform for the other kids. His pursuit of things spiritual began later, during freshman year of high school after attending a Baptist service. "It was an unspoken thing," he says. "Spirituality was something I wanted in my life." Graduating in 1984 with a degree in theater from the University of Texas at Arlington, Phillips spent two years stage acting in Dallas and Fort Worth. Before La Bamba, he made two Christian-oriented films, Angel Alley and Harley, and one minor mainstream movie, Trespasses.

Though Phillips says he never experienced prejudice growing up, his Hispanic looks have stereotyped him as an actor. "I was the in-house gang member," he says of his work at the Stage West theater company in Fort Worth. Two years ago he had a bit part on Dallas, playing a derelict who harasses Linda Gray. "Of course they leave those parts to the ethnics," he says. Phillips is pleased that La Bamba doesn't depict Hispanics exclusively as dealers and pimps. As its producer, Taylor Hackford, claims, "It's the first truly positive film about the Hispanic-American experience to come out of Hollywood."

Phillips' preparations for La Bamba, which included taking guitar lessons and gaining 15 pounds, were demanding. Director Valdez strapped a Walkman to the actor's head and blasted him with Valens' music (redone for the film by Los Lobos) for two weeks. Recalls Phillips: "Luis said to me, 'If I ever see you without the Walkman, you're a dead man.' I'd wake up in the night singing La Bamba."

Maybe the song, based on a traditional Mexican wedding ballad, left its imprint. On June 27, acting "on a whim," Phillips married his girlfriend of two years, assistant director Julie Cyphers. The pair met on the set of Trespasses. "I was a grip and he played a rapist," says Julie, 22. "He looked really scary. But there was something about his eyes that told me he was a neat guy." Phillips prefers being married to someone in the business, "because it takes a very special person to understand what people in the industry go through," he says. "At this point, with La Bamba coming out, we're going to need an awful lot of support for one another."

The newlyweds, who have just moved from West Hollywood to a rustic red-clapboard house in Laurel Canyon, aren't making immediate plans to start a family. "We'll do it in 10 years," says Julie. "Around here, it's Academy Awards before babies."

In Phillips' next movie, co-starring Miami Vice's Edward James Olmos and The Untouchables' Andy Garcia, he plays an East L.A. cholo who tries giving up gang warfare for the straight life. The title of the film, Walking On Water, could well describe Phillips' beatific state. "I get intense gratification out of making movies," he says. "I love watching things come to life. I love this business so much. Whether in front of the camera or on the other side, I want to be in it until I die."

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