When Edward James Olmos first met educator Jaime Escalante at an NAACP banquet six years ago, he had no idea that one day he'd be playing the man in a film that looks like the biggest movie hit in Olmos' career.
Olmos recalled the incident while visiting Dallas for a recent screening of "Stand and Deliver," in which he plays Escalante. Olmos, "Stand and Deliver" co-star Lou Diamond Phillips, along with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland, appeared for a screening that benefited Bethphage Mission, Inc. and the liver transplant fund for Ryan McCoy. Sheen and Sutherland are co-starring with Phillips in "Young Guns," now filming near Santa Fe, N.M."Jaime had won an award as Educator of the Year," said Olmos, best known for his role as the dour and mystical Lt. Martin Castillo on television's "Miami Vice." "I had won for Humanitarian of the Year. We were up there on the dais, looking each other over."
Olmos won his NAACP Award for speaking in "penal institutions, juvenile halls, migrant camps, hospitals."
"Everywhere they'd tell me to go, I'd go over there and speak," said the actor, who was born and reared in East Los Angeles.
Escalante won his award for inspiring 18 students in an East Los Angeles barrio school to take the Advanced Placement exam in calculus, a test that few students of more privileged background would even attempt. All 18 of Escalante's students had passed the exam but 14 were accused of cheating. "Stand and Deliver" dramatizes the event.
"At the banquet they praised his unconventional teaching practices, how he would come to class in costume and really rouse his students into feeling that learning could be entertaining. All I saw was this very quiet and unassuming guy."
Four years later, one of Olmos' first chores after becoming involved in the movie was to tell Escalante that he was going to play him.
"Jaime was very inexperienced about the ways movies are made. He really didn't know a great deal about movies at all. He didn't really speak English growing up, and he didn't attend Hollywood movies. As an adult, whenever he had time for entertainment, he would go to the opera or the symphony."
In his naivete about film making, Escalante thought the producers wanted him to play himself.
"I had to inform him otherwise," Olmos said. "He took it very well, very gratefully. So he became my acting coach. He was on the set all the time, directing me through it. He's the finest acting coach I've ever had."
Once he saw that a movie could be made from his experiences, Escalante became less shy.
"He was never shy in the classroom. Far from it. And in his own environment, with his own family, he was very outgoing. But now, he's much more open all the time. The way he used to be only with his class and his family, he's that way all the time."
Olmos himself is far from shy. His friendly smile and expressive hand gestures are offset by burning eyes. And when he talks about Escalante, his dark eyes seem to intensify.
"The man is a national hero. Right now he's got 145 kids preparing to take the Advanced Placement calculus exam, and he's got 300 names on his waiting list, kids just aching to get into his class. He teaches that the whole concept of mathematics is to learn theory, to calculate, to make choices.
"The film hits a human nerve that translates into a tremendous sense of triumph at a time when 49 percent of Hispanics will not graduate from high school. And at a time when we have 30 million functioning illiterates in this country. Obviously, this film touches a chord with me. You don't hear me talking this way about `Miami Vice."'
But, of course, he knows "Miami Vice" must be discussed, and he will discuss it honestly.
"I love my character. I think Lt. Castillo is a great man. And I love `Vice' when it's at its best. But it's too inconsistent, and inconsistency is the only thing that makes me insecure. I don't think it will be renewed, which is probably the best thing that could happen to Don Johnson. I've known him since 1968, since he did `Fortune and Men's Eyes' for Sal Mineo. He was magnificent in it. He's too good an actor to be caught up in hype."
Olmos always has followed his own standards when forging his career. He proudly says that he's turned down a dozen films in a half-dozen years.
"They wanted me to play villains in `Scarface,' `Firestarter,' `Band of the Hand' and `Streets of Fire.' I never could understand the characters or why some of those films were being made in the first place."
Similarly, Escalante has refused to leave Garfield High School, despite offers to teach at colleges. "He's devoted to the students in the barrio. And he makes,
say, $30,000 to $35,000 a year and he could make much more."
Most of the students in "Stand and Deliver" are composites of students Escalante taught from 1974 to 1982. However, Angel, the hard-nosed gang member portrayed by Phillips, is based on a former student who now is an airplane pilot.
"When I went to school, I had some really bad teachers," Olmos recalled. "They had become teachers because they didn't know what else to do, and the school system would take anyone in those days. I think things have changed now. Jaime is the norm as far as the dedication and commitment of today's teachers go. What makes him exceptional is his total commitment to `each' of his students. He understands that however ambitious and determined he expects his students to be, he has to be even more ambitious and determined `for' them."
Olmos' eyes continue burning as he talks.
"We've never been this low in the history of education in this country. I hope elected officials will use the title of the movie as a catchline. I would love to see President Reagan use `Stand and Deliver' the way he used `Rambo.' Then maybe, just once, the American people would say, `OK, President Reagan, let's see you deliver. Go ahead and make education have a higher budget than the arms race.' That would make me so happy."
To fans of "Miami Vice," or to those who saw him in "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," "Zoot Suit," "Blade Runner" or "Wolfen," Olmos is virtually unrecognizable in "Stand and Deliver." To emulate Escalante's physical appearance, he gained 41 pounds and wore a complex hairpiece that gives the appearance of baldness. To capture the cadence of his classroom speeches, he taped and studied more than 30 hours of conversation between the teacher and his students.
"It was the kind of research that (Robert) De Niro does for his parts. That's one thing I feel good about. The movie has done sensational business in New York and Los Angeles. If it continues to be a hit, it will give me the advantage of time.
"Actors like De Niro and Meryl Streep are booked two years ahead of time. They know what they're going to do, and they can prepare for their roles. Me, I've mostly been given two weeks' notice whenever I've gotten a part."