A Man for All Faces

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

JOHN LEGUIZAMO NEVER SHUTS UP. ON the big screen, the Colombia-born actor offers such gritty turns as a robber in Regarding Henry and a nerdy clerk in Hangin' with the Homeboys. On the tube—in his current one-man HBO show, Mambo Mouth, reprising his award-winning off-Broadway performance—he holds forth in stinging comedic personae ranging from a transvestite hooker to a success-hungry Hispanic who models himself on a Japanese businessman.

In the process, LeGuizamo, 27, has taken on the mantle of the late Freddie Prinze. Like the Puerto Rican comedian who starred in TV's Chico and the Man before committing suicide in 1977, LeGuizamo earns as many uneasy smiles as belly laughs. His Mambo Mouth characters, such as illegal alien Pepe Vasquez, unsettled some people. "Is he parodying stereotypes?" asked New York Newsday theater critic Jonathan Mandell. "Or is he himself largely guilty of perpetuating them?"

LeGuizamo has heard it all before. "Some Latins wonder why I'm not doing these Bill Cosby—type doctors," says the actor. "My show's not about creating new images. It's about taking old images and twisting them inside out and saying all these horrible things about our feelings of inferiority and racism that we feel inside and have heard growing up. For me, it is an exorcism."

A hard-earned one at that. When John was 3, his father, Alberto, a salesman, and his mother, Luz, emigrated from Bogotá to Queens in New York City. A year later Alberto collected John and his younger brother, Sergio (now 25 and an aspiring opera singer), from their grandmother's home. When not working—Alberto was a waiter; Luz labored in a factory—his parents fought. They divorced when John was 13. "I became this crazy maniac," says LeGuizamo, "always causing trouble."

One day on the subway, he and a friend took over the public-address system on one of the trains, delivering a joking travelogue as "your new subway deejays." The police were not amused. John, then 14, was shipped off to relatives in Bogotá for a year. It hardly helped. Back in New York, his public school recommended that he attend the city-run Youth Counseling League. Meantime a teacher suggested that John channel his high spirits into acting. So in 1983 he picked an acting school out of the yellow pages—and discovered that he had a mouth. Remembers Luz: "He said he wanted to be a veterinarian. But he would lock himself in the bathroom and practice his voices for hours."

After more drama studies at New York University, he had a small role on Miami Vice and then was cast as an Hispanic soldier who reluctantly goes along with a rape in 1989's Casualties of War. "I grew up a lot there," says LeGuizamo of his experience with stars Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox. "From Sean I learned that acting is real and you can let it go as big as you want."

In 1986 he first met his fiancée, comedian Carolyn McDermott, 28. They teamed briefly in clubs before LeGuizamo started on Mambo Mouth. Currently he is working on his next one-man effort, Spicarama, and he wants to become a filmmaker à la Spike Lee. "I want to contribute Latin culture to American culture," LeGuizamo says. "To show our sensibility and our passions."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

From Our Partners