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Spotlight on Jimmy Smits

The TV vet is back in action on CBS’s ”Cane”

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”God bless you, dear.” Those sincerely delivered words wouldn’t be out of place at a church luncheon; they’re a little more surprising coming from the mouth of a Hollywood big shot. But this is Jimmy Smits, the man who’s played the kind of honorable and upstanding lawyers (L.A. Law), cops (NYPD Blue), and politicians (The West Wing) we yearn for in everyday life. And at first glance his newest character, devoted husband and father Alex Vega on CBS’ Cane, seems cut from the same high-moral-fiber cloth — until minutes from the end of the first episode when he orders a hit on a man threatening his family. Whoa, Jimmy. Is the man who played Star Wars‘ Jedi-saving Bail Organa finally flirting with the dark side?

Maybe just a little. ”Everything Alex does, he does out of love for his family. There’s a strong moral compass there,” says the Emmy-winning actor, during a break from shooting Cane‘s fifth episode. ”But there are a lot of chinks in his armor. That was something I thought had the potential to sizzle up a bit.”

And hopefully pack enough heat to turn Cane into another Smits hit. The self-described ”Brooklyn boy” has a lot riding on the sexy, sudsy drama about a superrich Cuban-American family in the sugar and rum business. (Think Dynasty meets King Lear meets The Sopranos, by way of Florida.) For one thing, it’s been about, oh, 21 years since he’s been on the launching team of a new series. (Yes, L.A. Law really was that long ago.) And instead of teaming up with the heavyweight producers — Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, and John Wells — with whom he’s collaborated in the past, Smits is taking on that role for the first time. ”Nurturing a project from the ground floor is something I’ve been wanting to do,” he explains. ”This one came along and it seemed like a good fit.”

It helped that Cane was created by Cynthia Cidre, a screenwriter Smits had met on an obscure 1991 feature they did together called Fires Within. ”Cynthia is somebody I respect, whose voice is authentic,” says the 52-year-old actor. ”We think alike with regard to the way Latinos are perceived in this country.” The very fact of building a one-hour drama around a wealthy, educated — not to mention impossibly gorgeous — Latino family marks a milestone of sorts. ”There are numerous examples where we’re singin’ and dancin’ or bein’ funny,” says Smits, who is half Puerto Rican, half Surinamese. ”The drama department — that’s been a tough nut to crack.” Still, Cane is not intended for a niche market. ”Through the show’s cultural specificity, you get something interesting and unique, but it shouldn’t be about wearing that totally on your sleeve. We want as wide a demographic as possible.”

Of course, attracting that kind of audience requires hard work — even for Smits, who seems to have a Midas touch for television. (His final-season arc on West Wing helped restore the show’s critical glory before it went off the air.) So far, shooting has been smooth, but he confesses that it’s been ”rough” adjusting to his dual roles as star and exec producer. ”I’m on set everyday. If I’m not acting, I’m going to a music meeting, or looking at a cut of a particular [episode], or reading the next script. I haven’t read the newspaper in a month and a half,” admits the actor, who can also be seen in this month’s The Jane Austen Book Club. ”But I don’t want to just have another title, be another quote-unquote hyphenate. I want to really contribute.”

That sits perfectly fine with Hector Elizondo, who plays Alex Vega’s adoptive dad and father-in-law. (You read that right. The semi-incestuous coupling is Cidre’s homage to Wuthering Heights.) ”He’s a hands-on guy — that’s what I like. Jimmy Smits is one of the preeminent gentlemen in our business,” raves Elizondo. ”We have a nice paternal relationship. He calls me ‘Papi’ off the set. Of course, [it’s a good thing] he’s playing my adoptive son, because we don’t look anything alike. He’s taller than Abraham Lincoln!” (For the record, Smits is 6 foot 3, one inch shorter than the 16th president.)

So what are Smits’ chances of finding himself at the center of a fourth hit series? The monster success of Ugly Betty has the Cane clan feeling hopeful that America will embrace another show about a Latino family. But until the premiere, they’re just trying to be patient. ”It’s weird right now — we’re kind of working in a vacuum because we’re not getting any [ratings] feedback,” notes Smits. ”The network seems to be happy. We’ll see. You gotta just throw it out there.” Is it nerve-racking? ”You know,” Smits says, speaking with the calm of a three-decade Hollywood vet, ”there are some things you have to give up to the higher power. All I can say is, I’m happy to be up at bat again.”

Smits reviews his TV jobs well done.

”I used to wear sneakers with those nice suits because I wanted Victor Sifuentes to have a bounce in the courtroom,” says Smits of his L.A. Law attorney. ”That’s the feeling I remember — effervescence and energy.”

Joining NYPD Blue in season 2 as detective Bobby Simone was like ”jumping on a fast-moving train.” His best memories? ”Partnership. I knew that Dennis [Franz and I] had each other’s back. It was a great dynamic.”

Appearing on The West Wing as presidential candidate Santos ”made me a better actor. I had to tap into a different kind of energy. That [live] debate episode I got to do with Alan Alda? Oh, my God — it was like Playhouse 90!”