Posted by Christian Pierce on December 5, 2016
Late in the fall of 1999, the British film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett in her breakthrough role, was released to great critical acclaim. I couldn’t believe reviewers and critics touted a film that was so clearly flawed (can anyone say “the 180-rule” or “screen direction”). And, the hyperbole surrounding Blanchett accelerated as awards season grew closer. Echoes of “the best acting of the year” were everywhere. Blanchett was fine, but for me it was another example of that stiff-upper-lip style of acting that Hollywood has been enamored with since Charles Laughton won the Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1934. As I reflected on America’s Anglophilia, I pondered what I thought might be the best acting of the year. It did not take me long to figure it out: It was A Martinez and Jacklyn Zemon in an episode of the ABC soap opera General Hospital.
The storyline was one of those “returned from the dead” plots that soaps are so fond of. In this episode, longtime character Bobbie Spencer, played by Zemon, is strolling along the docks of Port Charles when she accidentally runs into Roy DiLucca, her beau from two decades earlier who had died in her arms. DiLucca was played by Martinez, who was not the actor who originated the character. It was the type of ridiculous narrative context that you can only find on soaps. But, what could have been an occasion for exaggerated theatrics was a moving scene of emotional depth. There was little if any dialogue as the two soap-opera veterans expressed an emotional trajectory of shock, the pain of loss and the reawakening of love in a matter of seconds. The scene transcended the absurd storyline because the emotions were relatable to anyone who has ever lost a spouse—or, parent, or friend, or child—and wished so hard for them to return.
Martinez was not new to soaps; in the mid-1980s, he starred on NBC’s Santa Barbara as one-half of a super-couple with Marcy Walker, Cruz Castillo and Eden Capwell. I know what you are thinking: Why am I writing about a soap-opera actor on FilmStruck, a streaming service devoted to high-end film fare? My answer would be: Don’t be so snobby. Not only is A Martinez a gifted actor, but you can learn a lot about the entertainment business when you look closely at the career of a performer like Martinez.
Born Adolpho Larrue Martinez III, the actor is of Mexican and Native American heritage. In the early 1980s, if he had pursued film acting in Hollywood, he would likely have been cast in roles as gang members and drug dealers—a fate he endured as a journeyman actor on episodes of prime-time television. Before Santa Barbara, he played more than his share of pimps, dope dealers, assassins, and crime victims. As Cruz Castillo, he got to play a heroic leading man—a cop who pursued the wrong-doers and landed the leading lady. Soaps have historically been at the forefront of putting minorities in important roles, though not for any altruistic reasons and not with any consistency. Soap producers are merely looking for that key ingredient essential to luring viewers—charismatic actors who have chemistry with other charismatic actors. According to Martinez in a 1989 interview, “Reuben Cannon, who was casting the show, and Dolores Robinson, my manager, laid it out to me. They said if I ever wanted to play a leading man, I had to play a role in which I got the girl.” As “the only major Hispanic character in daytime TV,” he won an Imagen award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for portraying Hispanics in a positive light.
His success in soap operas and the fan recognition that goes with it gave him better opportunities in prime-time, including the role of detective Gil Carillo in the made-for-TV Manhunt: The Search for the Night Stalker (1989) and as regular Daniel Morales in the hit series L.A. Law (1990-1994). Both characters are positive depictions of Hispanics as prime-time began to catch up with the soaps in terms of casting. Still, there is the impression that prime-time producers were casting for tokenism, rather than casting for star power. Martinez acknowledged in an interview that he was likely brought in to replace resident Hispanic Jimmy Smits, though his popularity on Santa Barbara was mentioned by the producers as a factor in the decision.
Martinez’s opportunity for a starring role in a movie came as a result of his Indian heritage; he is part Blackfoot on his mother’s side. In Powwow Highway, a 1989 independent film with an all-Indian cast, Martinez plays Buddy Red Bow, a hot-headed young man who is angry about the political issues affecting his people. Catch Powwow Highway on FilmStruck, and be sure to pay attention to the opening scene. In a local bar, Buddy plays pool with a vengeance: Each time he plants a ball in the pocket, he notes one more injustice against his people, whether it is an infringement on native land or the new strip mine about to open. At one point, he ferociously slams one in the side pocket against a hated pipeline snaking across Indian lands. Later, Buddy argues with his friend, Philbert, noting that the whites are not going to hold off much longer for their land and the natural resources under it. The dialogue is so timely considering the standoff at Standing Rock between the Sioux and the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the DAPL pipeline: Some things just don’t change.
Powwow Highway is essentially a road movie in which two mismatched opposites become friends as the journey progresses. But, the familiar genre is invigorated by its focus on a particular region and culture. The Native American actors in Powwow Highway are natural and authentic, including a young Wes Studi and the spiritual Gary Farmer, who seems to envelop the environment around him. But, A Martinez, the film’s only bona fide star, gives the story its energy and drama. Like an outlaw from an old-school western, Buddy Red Bow is an activist who is also a trouble-maker and hell-raiser. Martinez imbues the character with romance and charisma.
Starring roles for Hispanic actors in Hollywood movies during the prime of Martinez’s career were rare, which was also true for Asian and Native American actors. At the very beginning of his career, he costarred as one of the adolescents hired by John Wayne to herd cattle in The Cowboys (1972), a movie that opened the door for him as a professional actor. The same year that Powwow Highway was released, Martinez landed a small role in the Roseanne Barr comedy She Devil, in which Meryl Streep costars as a spoiled romance novelist. Martinez played Streep’s handsome, hot-blooded pool boy/butler. Though the role did not have a lot of lines, he was quite funny as the sexy Latin hunk who struts around the house bare-footed with his shirt open. It’s clear his duties are more than answering the door.
These days, an actor with Martinez’s resume is a treasure for producers looking for powerful character actors in long-running television series. Recently, he appeared in the recurring role of Jacob Nighthorse in the series Longmire, a modern-day western. The series originated on A&E but finished its final two seasons on Netflix.
Looking at the career of A Martinez reveals many aspects of the contemporary entertainment industry, especially in regards to actors. The Hollywood studios remain backward in their hiring of minority actors for leading roles; indie movies and cable television are the best hope for diversity in casting; and soap operas were ahead of the game when they made A Martinez a star.
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