Born in New York City on December 22, 1936, Hector Elizondo first gained recognition on the New York stage for his Obie Award-winning portrayal of God in “Steambath.” He went on to garner praise for his work on Broadway in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “The Great White Hope,” and “Sly Fox,” for which he received a Drama Desk Award nomination, as well as the revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”
Hector was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and an American Comedy Award for his performance in Garry Marshall’s mega-hit “Pretty Woman.” He has worked with Marshall in all of the director’s films, beginning with “Young Doctors in Love” and going on to include “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common,” “Runaway Bride,” “The Princess Diaries” and “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” and last year’s hit “Valentine’s Day.” And his additional film credits include “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Music Within,” “Tortilla Soup,” “Necessary Roughness,” “American Gigolo” and the original version of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” to name a few.
Hector won an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Dr. Phillip Watters on CBS’s “Chicago Hope.” During his half-dozen seasons on the show, he received 3 additional Emmy nominations and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series. He also received an Emmy nomination for his role in the telefilm “Mrs. Cage.”
Currently, he can be seen in the ABC comedy hit “Last Man Standing” starring Tim Allen. Here, he talks about his latest outing as Kominsky in Garry Marshall’s holiday-themed ensemble comedy, “New Year’s Eve,”
Hector Elizondo: My pleasure, Mr. Williams.
KW: Normally, I start by asking an actor what interested them in the picture or why they wanted to work with the director, but there’s no need in this case, given your long relationship with Garry Marshall. You’ve appeared in all of his films. How did the two of you start collaborating?
HE: It goes back to about 1979. He knew me before I knew him. [Chuckles] I had no idea who he was but he knew who I was because I’d been working on the stage and in movies for about 20 years. We met playing basketball in a pickup game with a bunch of other older guys from New York. We hadn’t been introduced, but this guy with wrapped knees was guarding me and sticking to me like Velcro. And when I tried to whip a behind-the-back pass to a teammate, something happened. So, the first time I met Garry Marshall was right after I almost knocked his teeth out. The ball hit him in the chops and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. New Year’s Eve is our 17th film together.
KW: Wow! Which one of his movies would you say is your favorite?
HE: The first one, Young Doctors in Love. We had as much fun as you could have making a movie.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: How hard was it to come up with Kominsky’s Eastern European accent in New Year’s Eve?
HE: Not hard at all. It was my 6th or 7th time with that accent. I do many accents, everything from Japanese to Russian to Middle-Urdu, for God’s sake. In the case of Kominsky, we invented this character, because he wasn’t in the script. We had to figure him out. He brings the light to the dark, so he’s sort of like the cavalry that saves the day. So, we decided that he was a whistleblower who had been fired because he warned that the ball in Times Square was going to get stuck someday. Sure enough, it happens, and they have to call him back to fix it.
KW: The film has so many stars in it. Who’d you get to do scenes with?
HE: Hilary Swank, who was terrific. Absolutely sensational! I can’t say enough about her.
KW: What’s up next for you?
HE: A half-hour sitcom with Tim Allen called Last Man Standing. It airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
HE: Yeah, what did you really want to do before you became an actor?
KW: Okay, what did you really want to be when you grew up?
HE: I wanted to play baseball for one of New York’s major league teams: the Yankees, the Giants or the Dodgers. Or else I wanted to play jazz or become a schoolteacher. But life didn’t lead me that way. I was introduced to the theater, and that hooked me. I landed my first professional acting job in 1960.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
HE: Now that’s a good question. I won’t tell you the joke, but last week I heard a good St. Peter at the Pearly Gates joke that was great because it recalibrated me and brought me back into focus.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
HE: Dark chocolate.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
HE: John Updike’s collection of short stories called “My Father’s Tears.”
But I have very eclectic tastes, and I’m always reading several books at once. I’m also reading the essays of Montaigne. And an upcoming novel by my friend, Robert Kalich called “The Investigation of Ariel Warning.” And I also just finished the Haruki Murakami novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” He’s a wonderful writer. And Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason.”
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to?
HE: The String Quartets of Philip Glass. They’re stunning. I keep replaying them and I discover something new every time. I love chamber music. To me, it’s the purest form of music.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
HE: I’m very monk-like. I can make do with a bowl of brown rice with veggies and grilled chicken with a little hot sauce on it, as long as I can have it with a glass of Cabernet or Pinot Noir. I can’t eat dinner without drinking a little red wine. I’m a cheap date! [Laughs]
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
HE: I see someone who should be having a better time than he is.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
HE: To get my knees back.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
HE: Suckling on the big, brown nipple of a wet nurse, when I was about 3 years-old. My father couldn’t get over the fact that I remembered that.
KW: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
HE: Right now, it’s a guy named Memo Becerra.
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
HE: [LOL] I’m not much of a businessman. My best business decision was to be conservative and not try to make a killing in the stock market. My worst business decision was as young kid when I was working in a mailroom and I didn’t listen to my boss’ suggestion to buy a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock in a company called Xerox.
KW: The Judyth Piazza questions: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
HE: I was a very sickly kid. I sent away for a Charles Atlas booklet for 98-pound weaklings I saw advertised in the back of a comic book. It took a lot of work, but that gave me the confidence I needed.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What is your favorite charity?
HE: Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch and the IRC, International Rescue Committee.
KW: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
HE: Not succumbing to materialism.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
HE: Art… a great painting… new ideas… new music… the curve of a woman’s calf… shapely hips… Serena Williams. [LOL]
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
HE: My father. My dad was my hero, a working-class guy who came here during The Depression and just did the right thing. He was an old-fashioned, unsung hero who always put food on the table.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
HE: As someone who stood up to be counted when it really mattered.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Hector. I really appreciate it. And best of luck with both New Year’s Eve and Last Man Standing.
HE: I loved it, man. Take care of yourself, Kam.