- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2000

Actor Jimmy Smits and director Carlos Avila were together in Washington earlier this week for a benefit screening of "Price of Glory" at the Cineplex Odeon Avalon, but the two will be on opposite sides of the country when their movie opens Friday.

Mr. Smits, cast as a former boxer named Arturo Ortega who becomes domineering to a fault while grooming three sons for the ring, plans to be visiting his mother and sisters in Brooklyn, where he lived for several years in his youth.

Mr. Avila, who grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, will check out the responses at several theaters in Greater Los Angeles, including a showcase in Westwood and sites in "largely Latino neighborhoods."

In a press session at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, Mr. Smits could not recall where he and Mr. Avila first met. The director had a precise recollection: "on the set of 'Mi Familia,' five years ago."

The gestation of "Price of Glory" was long: Five years passed between the time Mr. Avila first read the script and when he got the opportunity to film it.

"We really started to spend a lot of time together prior to the production of this movie," Mr. Avila says of Mr. Smits. "There were many, many meetings to chart out Arturo Ortega's journey. That was one of the great things about collaborating with Jimmy. As a first-time director, I had a star's total commitment from a very early point."

Mr. Smits elaborates: "I think we realized that beyond actor and director, we needed to sustain a strong partnership. Carlos kept me closely involved from pre-production through the editing. You want to be able to give your opinion, since your reputation is kind of riding on the results, but not to the point of being intrusive, being a detriment to someone else's vision."

A graduate of the UCLA film school, Mr. Avila attracted movie-festival attention with a 1991 dramatic short, "Distant Water." He then directed an installment of the "American Playhouse" series titled "La Carpa" and a quartet of half-hour TV episodes, "Foto-Novelas," inspired by Mexican pulp novels and comic strips.

Mr. Avila spent several years developing "Price of Glory" with its author, former New York Times sports reporter Phil Berger, who turned to fiction, at least part time, in the 1990s and wrote an unproduced play about a Mexican-American boxing clan known as "The Fighting Ortegas."

The play never was produced but had some public readings. Mr. Smits remembers reading a manuscript shortly before he agreed to fill the David Caruso gap in the cast of "NYPD Blue." He was favorably impressed by "promising, dynamic relationships" in the manuscript but found the general outlook "a little bleak and somber."

Mr. Avila and Mr. Berger collaborated on many screenplay drafts while Mr. Smits became a prominent television performer. He was nominated for an Emmy six consecutive seasons while portraying attorney Victor Sifuentes on "L.A. Law" and eventually won the prize in 1990. He added annual nominations while portraying the ill-fated Bobby Simone on "NYPD Blue."

"I finish my tenure on 'Blue,' " Mr. Smits recalls, "and one of the first things I'm asked to read is this script called 'Price of Glory.' That doesn't ring a bell, but the characters sure sounded a little familiar. Finally I figured out that it was the same story [as in the manuscript read earlier]. I got seriously interested in this version, met Carlos, and we started to talk."

Mr. Avila says the project expanded a bit. "The first production company that expressed interest thought in terms of a down-and-dirty guerrilla film," he relates. "Something that would cost about $500,000. As Phil and I spent more and more time on the story, we realized it couldn't be done without spending a lot of time in arenas and doing some really big fight sequences. We wanted to show the progression this family has in the fight world over two generations. The budget had to be bigger, and it became a large-scale story."

The casting of Mr. Smits, who will be 45 this summer, required some alterations in the protagonist, who had been envisioned as a much older man. "He was still going to be a guy with three sons who grow up and become old enough to fight professionally," Mr. Avila says. "So that meant he was a young father to begin with. That was a plus, since it reflected the reality of the community in an effective way. It's not unusual to find young men of 17 or 18 who have fathered children."

At this point, Mr. Smits raises his hand to indicate that he was one of those young men when the first of his two children was born. "Jimmy is perceived as a man of the 1990s," Mr. Avila says, "and it seemed foolish to force him into another generation for little discernible benefit. This way you can believe that Arturo is still young enough to recall his boxing dreams and disappointments very intensely."

Neither actor nor director was familiar with boxing circles when they first were attracted to the material. One of the actors cast as an Ortega son, Jon Seda, had boxing experience, but the rest had to do homework from the ground up.

Between the time Mr. Avila first read "Price of Glory" and when he filmed it, he had ample time to become familiar with the boxing world. "I became a gym rat," he says. "I hung out with a lot of trainers and fighters mostly in L.A., but also in San Antonio and Phoenix, once we knew that our principal setting would probably be somewhere in the Southwest. As it happens, we shot most of the picture in L.A. and did just a couple of days in Nogales, Ariz., which doubles for the fictional border town, Mariposa, where the Ortegas live… . When Jimmy came on board, we went to several Silver Gloves tournaments."

"The peewee fights," Mr. Smits says. "They're the Little League of boxing, for kids about 10 to 16. They take it very seriously, but it's a family thing, too. People come in minivans from all parts of the state. The vast majority of the kids and parents wanted to impress on us that it was discipline and education that mattered most. They're very strict about where hits could be. There's a lot of structure and protection for the participants. It's boxing at its purest. It allows you to forget about the aberrations that begin with big money and have kind of brought professional boxing to its knees again."

Mr. Smits insists that he never envisioned "leaving" television for movies when he appeared in a flurry of features after "L.A. Law." He still has a lucrative deal with one of the networks and assumes he'll return to a series sooner or later.

"I don't exclude anything," he says. "I don't see the boundaries… . People go back and forth from series to TV movies to features all the time now. It's all work, and it's always good roles you want to find. Very few actors are ever in a position to get too choosy. I still go out and audition for stuff. In fact, I auditioned four times for Wim Wenders before I got a role in his new movie, 'Million Dollar Hotel.' "

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