John Leguizamo on Latinos in Hollywood Comedian and author John Leguizamo talks about his new book, Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends and what it's like to be a Latino in Hollywood.
NPR logo

John Leguizamo on Latinos in Hollywood

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
John Leguizamo on Latinos in Hollywood

John Leguizamo on Latinos in Hollywood

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's not uncommon for Hollywood types to write tell-all autobiographies and dish about the insider gossip, celebrities, and insane personal assistants - on the theory, though, that they might want to continue work in the entertainment business, most only go public with this juicy material later in life. John Leguizamo figured, why not do it now?

At 42, Leguizamo has already lived many lives: as the kid of Colombia immigrants in Queens, as a struggling actor and comedian in Manhattan, then as a performer in films like “Summer of Sam” and as writer and star of one-man shows like “Live.”

(Soundbite of one-man show “John Leguizamo Live!”)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN LEGUIZAMO (Actor): I got to party now because I just had a daughter.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: That's right, so I have no life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No clubbing, no smoking, no hanging out - nothing. That's why I wrote this show, so I could get out the house.

CONAN: Like much of his work, Leguizamo's new book, “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life,” makes you laugh. But it also chronicles tension with his father and with an industry where Latino actors are often reduced to stereotypical roles as gangsters or janitors. It also doesn't shy away from his less celebrated work. “Super Mario Bros.” anybody?

Later on in the program, O.J. Simpson, Rupert Murdoch and the social uses of shame.

But first, if you have questions for John Leguizamo about his work, his life, or what it's like to be a Latino in Hollywood, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And joining us now from our bureau in New York City is John Leguizamo, and it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Good to be here and balmy in New York City.

CONAN: There you go. And I have to begin by asking you about the title, “All Your Hollywood Friends” - you live in New York.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I lived in L.A. for a while, and I moved back for those obvious reasons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And my next book is going to be “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and What's Left of My Hollywood Friends.”

CONAN: Has anyone actually told you you'll never work in this town again?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, you know, the good thing is that celebs don't read that well, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: …it's going to take a long - till the book comes out on tape, I'll be fine.

CONAN: They do have people who read books for them though, so they may...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, that'll be a...

CONAN: ...because they may...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I got a few calls of people saying, you know, why did you have to say it like that? I mean, you know, could you have made it a little more pleasant? I mean, it really - you know, they felt it went a little differently, but, you know.


Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I had to tell it the way I felt. It's my interpretation of situations.

CONAN: And it's, in fact, as it is pretty much the story of your life - at least thus far - there's a lot of it that takes place in New York City and your struggles, well, first to survive on the playground there. As you said, you weren't fast, so you had to develop a mouth.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I had to be funny. I mean, everybody in Queens and in Manhattan, there was a lot of thugishness going on in the ‘70s. And I was ill equipped, so I had to be witty, you know, and have voices and I would do impersonations of a lot of cartoons. Exit stage left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Heavens to - I say, boy, I say, boy, it's a chicken hawk. So I would do all my cartoon voices, and kids would laugh and they wouldn't beat up because they'd feel sorry for me.

CONAN: There's a funny scene in the book where you describe first grabbing a microphone - which happened to be in the conductor's little chamber there on the number seven train on the New York City subway system - and doing those very voices.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Right, and then the - my first bad review, or whatever, it was - you can interpret it as - I was arrested, so by…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: …I guess by the comedy police and handcuffed and taken off, you know. That'll teach me.

CONAN: Yeah, and later on, of course, arrested by the theater police of The New York Times when you did Puck in “Midsummer Night's Dream” and got described as feckless.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, you know, feckless. First of all, there's a problem, feckless. Because, you know, even though I took - you know, I got a 1600 on my SATs - if you count both times I took them...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: ...I didn't know what feckless meant, so it didn't really hurt me at the time, until I looked it up. It meant, you know, it meant that I was - barely didn't exist.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: But Puck was hard. I mean, I didn't grow up, you know, yonder hence, whence, can I have some, you know, some bubblelicious. You know, I didn't talk like that in the street. It was more jazz and funky.

CONAN: And...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And there's Papps, trying to show me how to do Shakespeare.

CONAN: The famed director of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp. Yeah.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Showing me how to do Puck better, and I - all I got of it was I - I'm a method guy, so let me just be a prankster all the time. And I started playing jokes backstage, and F. Murray Abraham was walking around with his Oscar from Salieri from “Amadeus.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And I put itching powder in everybody's clothes in intermission.

CONAN: You thought that was a pretty Puckish thing to do.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I thought it'd be hilarious. It wasn't.

CONAN: They didn't think it was so funny, no.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, because I didn't try the stuff. I got it at a joke shop, and it was like nettles, and everybody starting screaming. They couldn't go on. And I was hiding in a corner, and I got reported to Equity and fined 300 bucks a week.

CONAN: You got fined for that?


CONAN: So like…

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I got reported.

CONAN: Is this like Major League Baseball? You get called to the commissioner's office and fined?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And I had to change my wardrobe, too. I had to take out my earrings and whatever. No, it was serious. I mean, a fine at that - you know, I was young man. That was - 300 bucks was a lot. It was like my whole week's salary.

CONAN: You do not hold back on, though, in this book, on some of your mistakes - Puck among them. You were perhaps not necessarily qualified to play that part…


CONAN: …at that particular juncture of your career.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, we were getting reviewed and everything, and…

CONAN: Yeah, and it's going to be in all the papers.


CONAN: Your parents might read it. You know, you never know. As you moved on in career, you did, though, make some poor career choices.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Who doesn't? I mean, you don't go into a movie going, oh, I can't wait until this movie sucks. You know, you go in there thinking I'm going to be able to change this. I'm going to put some life into it, some real artistic thought to it. And you can't do it to “Super Mario Bros.” It's a videogame. But I really - I was young and naïve enough to think that I could do it.

CONAN: Hmm. So you thought, going in, this is going to be great. We're going to set the world on its ear. How soon did you figure out maybe not?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, pretty fast into it, because even though, you know - you know, for a movie, you always meet with the directors first.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And you have dinner with them, and they can be so charming, especially the Brits. They have - they put him on a better pony and - pony show than the Americans. And, you know, they were so charming. John, we're going to, you know, allow you to improvise and do whatever you want. It's going to be so exciting. We going to use the best qualities you have. You know, “Super Mario Bros.” is going to come life.

So, you know, I believed that song and dance. And I got on the set, and they're like, John, what are you doing? Please, you know, can you be a little more serious? You're not a clown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And I'm like I thought that's what you wanted me to do was to be funny. And then they stripped me of all my humor. And Bob Hoskins, you know - I love him.

CONAN: The great actor, yeah.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Great, great actor, playing my brother - only in Hollywood. And he would be going, John, not all British people are like this. I mean, that's -I could barely understand him. Only when I was drunk could I understand him. That Cockney's so strong. But he was upset, too. You know, it was like - it was a very confusing, bad movie.

CONAN: Well, let's get some confusing phone calls in on this: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us - 800-989-TALK. E-mail is Our guest is John Leguizamo. And we'll begin with Penny, Penny calling us from Half Moon Bay in California.

PENNY (Caller): Hi.


PENNY: I just wanted to tell Mr. Leguizamo that my husband and I not only own “Super Mario Bros.” on VHS, but we recently got the DVD. We watch it two or three times a year. It's one of our favorite things to do together. And we just are delighted with it, and it never ceases to entertain. So there you go. There are some fans out there of that film.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: See, your work - luckily, the work appeals to somebody sometimes, and then it all makes it all worthwhile, you know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: But, you know, artistically, it wasn't my best. I mean, you know - I mean I know some people liked it. I know I went to a strip club once, and I got an offer from a beautiful porn star because of “Super Mario Bros.,” you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Hmm. I had a friend who was in “Howard the Duck,” Penny. Do you have copies of that film as well?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, what are you trying to say?

PENNY: Don't have “Howard the Duck,” but “Super Mario Bros.” is the epitome of pure, unadulterated, unpretentious goofiness, and it just...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: It is so goofy. Dennis Hopper as the villain, trying to be a dinosaur, and we're all just ridiculous.

PENNY: (unintelligible) You just can't beat that.

CONAN: Hmm. Penny, thanks very much for the call and...

PENNY: Well, thank you.

CONAN: …please don't invite us over for dinner to your house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PENNY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Todd. Todd's with us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

TODD (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say to Mr. Leguizamo, I run a theater company and I'm also a guest artist-in-residence at a liberal arts college here in Kalamazoo - and this quarter in my class I had two Latino students, two guys. And I've been a big fan of yours since “Spic-O-Rama” and “Mambo Mouth.”

And I have a copy of “Spic-O-Rama.” Gave it one of the students, and he did a monologue from it. And in his journal afterwards - and I just wanted to let you know that your work really impacts a lot of people - he said it was a really great experience for him, and it gave him a way to really proudly talk about what it means to be Latino and enjoy all the uniqueness of being Latino. And it just was a very transforming experience, and he felt like your work really helped shape him, and I think he's going to go into acting now just because of that. So thanks.

CONAN: A competitor, just what you need.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, right. Now that I'm getting into the winter of my years...

CONAN: Yeah, a younger John Leguizamo.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: ...all this youth bubbling up with talent and more energy.

TODD: Exactly.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, it's interesting, because you know, when I started writing my own shows and doing what I was doing - creating theater - there was such a dearth of anything sort of like Latino-centric or from a real honest Latin point of view, and that's what I wrote my stuff, was for kids like myself and for myself just to have the stories out there.

That's why I wrote this book, too. It's like to have Latin stories told by Latin people is so empowering and so important, and that's why I do it. That's why I masochistically wrote this book at the ripe age of 42, to get myself - because I felt it was important to put my life out there in way that a kid can see it and go, I can come from the humblest beginnings, life's going to difficult, but I can make a difference, I can make something happen.

CONAN: I wonder - just to follow up on Todd's point - you were taking these sketches from real life - combining characters, that sort of thing, and putting them together. Did you ever envision - maybe not even till now - the idea of somebody doing - you doing those parts?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, I never thought that. That's the weirdest thing. You know, I do requests. People do “Spic-O-Rama,” “Mambo Mouth.” They haven't done “Freak” yet. They just do monologues from it. But they do either like one person does the whole show, or they get a whole class to do all the different parts. I find it so odd because, you know, it's like I just wrote it for myself, and they were just things I needed to do, and now people are wasting their time memorizing my lines. I don't know. It's kind of strange.

CONAN: And presumably people yelling at them when they don't get the lines right, because it's just like Shakespeare.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Somebody better be yelling.

CONAN: Shakespeare would have yelled at you. I'm sorry, Todd.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Papp yelled at me. Papp did yell.

CONAN: Todd, go ahead. I'm sorry.

TODD: Oh, sorry. No, I'm sorry. The thing, too, that I mean, yeah, it must be strange having somebody else or thinking of somebody else doing your work, but something he said in his journal that I thought was really neat and really pointed to kind of - I mean to sound pretentious - there's a universality in what you wrote - was he said I don't feel like I'm acting a role. I feel like I'm getting a chance to play an extension of myself, an extension of my community and people in my community that I know, and he really appreciated having an opportunity to do that. So maybe you wrote it for yourself, but it really impacts a lot of kids and a lot of people from that community, so thanks.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Awesome.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Todd. Appreciate it.

TODD: Yeah.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: It's good to heard that.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break. We'll be back with more from John Leguizamo about his new book and autobiography, and we'll take more of your calls: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Coming up on Wednesday's show, Kinky Friedman joins us. The author, musician, and just defeated candidate for governor, among other things, will fill us in on his new book, “The Christmas Pig.” You can read an excerpt and take a look at the rest of our upcoming shows at the TALK OF THE NATION page at Just click on More Upcoming Shows.

Today, we're talking with John Leguizamo about his life and career in entertainment and his new book, “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life.” If you want to know how he got his start in standup, you can go to to read an excerpt from his memoir. And here's your chance to talk to him and ask him a question if you'd like: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

And John Leguizamo, as his fans know, has an uncanny knack for doing impressions and voices. Here he is in “Moulin Rouge” as Toulouse-Lautrec.

(Soundbite of movie, “Moulin Rouge”)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: (As Toulouse-Lautrec) Christian, you may see me only as a drunken vice-ridden (unintelligible) pimps and girls in the brothel. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being.

CONAN: And John Leguizamo joins us from our bureau in New York and...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: There was the word pimp in there, see.

CONAN: Yeah, there you go. I was wondering which part of Jackson Heights did those people with those accents live in.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, it was so interesting doing Toulouse-Lautrec. I mean the accent, a lot of people thought I was just putting it on. But when I read all the research and all his, you know, biographies about him, he had a - because he was a product of two first cousins - he had a very thickened tongue…


Mr. LEGUIZAMO: …and he lisped and he drooled and he had a high-pitched voice, and that's why that voice is like that. And that little segment was taken from one of the letters he wrote, and I put that together with Baz Luhrmann.

CONAN: And of course people remember that part for the physical difficulties you had with the role. You had to literally play it on your knees.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: That's how I get most of my parts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Bada-dush! I literally had to be on my knees at the Chateau Marmont - this fancy hotel in LA - and chase Baz Luhrmann with a camera. And he's saying more accent, more lisp. And I'm like this, talking like this, and running around on my knees for two hours to get that part. It was between me, Rowan Atkinson and Alan Cummings.

CONAN: That's good company.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, but I - because he was afraid that I couldn't be Brit enough.

CONAN: Hmm. I wonder did you go back and look at the Jose Ferrer, how he did that part?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Of course, of course. But he looks like Dorf, you know, like Tim Conway with the sneakers on his knees.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: But he did brilliant job, obviously.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Robin, Robin with us from Sacramento, California.

ROBIN (Caller): OK, hi. I want to make a comment, and I'll listen to your reaction afterwards. But if the mark of a good actor is making the role completely believable and kind of losing your own identity then, John, your best role, in my opinion, was as Chi-Chi Rodriguez...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBIN: “To Wong Foo, Thank You” - you know - “for Everything, Julie Newmar.” And as I told the screener, hey, when my brothers and my late husband were watching that flick, they could not believe that you - that that role was played by a guy in drag, including the brother-in-law who is a drag queen. So I think that was a marvelous acting job and thoroughly enjoyed the film and muchly because of your being in it.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, I would have done me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, it's true. I mean I get a lot of mail from prison. That's not a joke. I don't know how they got my address. A lot of prison guys are big fans of that movie as well. That's why I don't jaywalk. I don't speed. You know, I'm a law-abiding citizen because I know if I go to jail, I'll be a prison bitch.

But you know, I mean sometimes a role like that comes, and I always - I'm crazy Method. You know, I studied with Lee Strasberg for a day and he died. But that's another point. But I am so Method. You know, I hung out with drag queens for a couple of months. I became a vegetarian. I lost all my muscle, no protein, and I just tried to be as much as I could. And you know, they let me ad-lib a lot, which is when I do my best, when I'm allowed to use my own writing ability and my research and everything, and that's when I shine the best.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question on that same movie. This from...

ROBIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Robin.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Thank you.

CONAN: This from Ryan in - I'm not sure where - but I heard there was a lot of tension on the set of this movie between you and Patrick Swayze. Is this true?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, there was a lot of tension. I don't know if Patrick was also Method and PMSing. And he was just - I don't know. He was having a hard time, and I was ad-libbing like crazy. I was rewriting a lot of stuff. And one morning, it was early, 5:00 a.m., you know, they had to put the anti-ugly lens on.

And Patrick is - you know, he says his lines, something like, I'll bet you they're going to eat me up. And I was like, eat you up and spit you out like ptomaine poisoning. And he goes, why don't you just say the line the way it's written? I go, come on, Patrick, you know the routine. He goes, why don't you just shut up and say the line. I said make me. And we started throwing fisticuffs.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: The director - yeah - and he's in...

CONAN: He's played a bouncer before. He knows how to fight.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: But he's in pumps right now, OK? He's in little hot pants and pumps, and I'm in something like, you know, a skirt and sandals, and it's ridiculous. You know, and the director's this British lady who's nine months pregnant.

CONAN: Let me ask you, where you so Method that you fought like girls?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, right, we started scratching and biting and...

CONAN: I don't know.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, no, we got manly at that point. All of a sudden the man in you comes out and you want to, you know, clock somebody. And Wesley, of course, was like, no, let them fight, let them take care of themselves.

CONAN: Well, we're glad we got that sorted out. We're not going to ask - well, never mind. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You're not going to ask what? Now I got to know what you were thinking, man.

CONAN: I was going to ask who came out on top, but I don't want it to be misinterpreted.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, no. Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Melissa, Melissa's on the line with us from Silicon Valley.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi, John Leguizamo, I'm calling from Public Allies. It's a nonprofit organization where we do training for mostly Latino and black folks...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: My peeps.

MELISSA: ...and we're just asking what your kind of definition of social justice is and how that relates to the work that you do.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Social justice.


Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Of social justice is incredibly important to me, especially, you know, being born Latin in this country, sort of feeling a little bit like an outsider, for the most part, and still kind of feeling like an outsider because of, you know, just news that you see, like the immigration laws and building a wall to block out - not the Canadians but, you know, it has be the Latin people that they have to try to block out.

You know, it's tough. And for me social justice is us finally getting to a place where we have the same, you know, abilities to get to the same place as everybody else. That's it, you know, and in my work I always try to uplift my people and uplift myself. And I have to do it. I have to up - I have to make the effort to uplift myself. I'm sure white people have to do that, too, in some ways, too.

Yeah. Life is hard for everybody. I'm not...


Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I don't hear any violins for me, but...

CONAN: You were old enough that when you started as an actor in movies and in television, in a way you were still young enough to be a pioneer, that, you know, Latinos were beginning to get parts.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, no, it's nice. I mean a lot of kids - you know, Freddy Rodriguez from “Six Feet Under,” when I was doing “Spic-O-Rama” in '93 in Chicago, I went to high schools to talk to kids, to inspire them. They came to see the show and whatnot. And there was Freddy, you know, a tiny little guy in, you know, high school. He said I want to be an actor, too. I said, dude, go for it, man. Hopefully I'll work with you some day. And we worked together and everything, you know, and so, yeah.

CONAN: Melissa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MELISSA: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get Eric on the line. Eric's with us from Bend, Oregon.

ERIC (Caller): Yeah, hi, John, this is Eric in Bend.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Eric, what's up?

ERIC: Yeah, with the recent comments from Michael Richards, his outburst, the term of cultural isolation has come up in reference to Hollywood. Can you speak to the idea that either Hollywood has or doesn't have an appetite for accurate portrayals of different cultures, minorities, in the entertainment industry?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Of course not. It's - anything by a corporation is not going to be - anything corporate-made is not going to be specific and detailed. It's just for the masses. And when work - when - a writer may write something very specific and personal and autobiographical. By the time it gets through the machine, it's going to be unrecognizable, and they're not going to care about the smaller numbers. They want to get as many butts in seats, and that's what happens in Hollywood.

I mean it's not - I don't think it's a purposefully racist business, but it just happens that way. And unfortunately in Los Angeles, in LA, the way they live there is very segregated, because when I lived there for a while, they just - everybody's in gated communities, and the white people stick together, the black people stick mostly - the Latin people in different neighborhoods, and nobody really mingles. Everybody's in a car.

And these are - this is where most of our culture is filmed. You know, this is the culture that makes all our movies. And these are the people - the writers, the directors, producers, studios - it's all right here in this segregated community. So how are they ever going to understand other people living in their gated communities? I mean that's what I tell my agents and all the people at William Morris and all the other agencies…

CONAN: Well, I was just...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO:'re not going to get - you're not going to understand us, because all the people you deal with - Latin people - are valets and maids, and I'm sure you love them and appreciate them, but you're not getting the whole value of us.

CONAN: I was going to ask you, just as a follow-up on that, I mean you - you're part of that system. You star in some of these big Hollywood movies that are, as you say, whose goal is to put butts in seats. Now, obviously you work in smaller, independent movies, too, but you're part of that system.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Are you trying to say I'm part of the problem?


Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, I try not to be a part of the problem. First of all, I live in New York. OK. That sets me apart. I separate myself on purpose. And the work, my work, I mean I got to make a living too, you know. And being - I'm soon to be the highest paid Latin actor in the world, you know, I have to sell out now and then.

But I definitely do enough work and I try to do as much work - because my life would be empty otherwise, I wouldn't really like my life - if I didn't get to do my independent movies and do my theater and do things that have a personal voice and aren't catering to everybody but just trying to say something beautiful and artistic. And, you know, I fail many times, but trying to get there is the beautiful part.

CONAN: There's a story you tell near the beginning of the book that illustrates this. Early in your career you were assigned to do an appearance on “Miami Vice,” but, you know, in a stereotypical role, but also at a time you really needed the money.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Right, right. I was 19 years old. It was the - “Miami Vice” was on its last legs and I had this horrible role but it was going to get me my agent and I got my SAG card and all that. And here I was becoming a theater actor in New York City and I thought myself very important and here I'm doing -I hated TV, just because all my acting teachers hated TV.

And I show up and Don Johnson's very friendly and he comes sits next to me and starts talking to me, and I pick up my tray and I move away because I was such a young punk. But I did it, you know, and I did get into the business that way, you know. Sometimes you've got to suck up and, you know, humiliate yourself and your people.

CONAN: Did you ever see that part when it showed up on TV?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, no. I try to avoid it. Please, I hate it.

CONAN: There's a couple in Half Moon Bay, I think, they may have the video tape. Anyway, thanks very much for the call Eric.

ERIC: Oh, no problem.

CONAN: We're talking today with John Leguizamo. If you'd like to join the conversation our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is And this is coming to you from TALK OF THE NATION and NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Daniel on the line. Daniel from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

DANIEL (Caller): Yes. Hello, Mr. Leguizamo, it's a great honor.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Thank you.

DANIEL: Years ago when I was in, gosh, fourth and fifth grade, we'd just moved back to the States, got my first fill of United States television show and you had a show - I believe it was called the “House of Buggin'.”

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah. That's what it was called.

DANIEL: Yes. And I realize I was probably too young to get most of the jokes, but I do remember laughing at a fair amount of it. Do you have any kind of plans of bringing a show like that back to television in the future?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, I don't know why - I don't. I don't have any more plans for that. I mean that was such a - that was a really tough experience for me. It was my first foray into television. We were replacing “In Living Color.” And I had created the show, and it was an all Latin cast I had handpicked and worked with for a long while.

And then Fox said to me, look we'd like to keep your show but we want to get rid of the whole cast. And I go but I can't, I have a commitment with these people. I'm not going to - you're going to have to fire me. So they fired me and they fired everybody and they kept the director, they kept the format, the producers, the directors, they kept one actor - the white guy - and they call it “Mad TV.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, so, you know, I don't really want to go back to TV in that format. Maybe some - I don't know. Maybe cable, but not network.

DANIEL: Ah. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks for the call.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Thank you for reminding me of that.

CONAN: Any other humiliations we can dredge up before you have to go?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I told you writing a biography is very - it's a very masochistic endeavor. I don't care what anybody says.

CONAN: I have to ask you before we let you go about the incident that happened last week that got all the attention. Michael Richards, of course the Kramer character on Seinfeld, doing a bit in a comedy club in Los Angeles and went off on a tirade that included a liberal use of…

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, that's the first thing you learn as being a comedian is - one of the first - how to deal with hecklers. And there's different -people deal with it badly or you want to be the guy who knows how to make people laugh even more at the heckling because you get a bigger laugh and the audience loves you.

And that's such a - he might be out of practice, because that's the biggest thing you do is learn how to put hecklers in their place in a funnier way and win the audience back. I don't know. What happened there was - I don't know -that was a meltdown.

I don't know how - I mean that's - you know, I'm a person of color, so whenever I see anything, you know, like that I'm just like goodbye. You're crossed off.

CONAN: But one of his sins, from what you're saying, is a lack of professionalism. He didn't do his job.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. That's - more than anything, that's how clinically, technically I would see it, you know. You just didn't - you didn't solve the problem. You alienated everybody. Everybody walked out. What kind of comedian are you?

CONAN: I wonder, when that first came up in your career - obviously you were heckled too - everybody is, I mean it's part of the job, isn't it?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: People threw bottles at me. What do you mean heckled? People would start singing Ritchie - the La Bamba song. Are you kidding? Of course. And a few times I would just give - my first approach was to just keep going and ignore it, maybe it will go away. That doesn't work.

Then I tried, you know, like try to come up with little jokes and that was only encouraging them. You have to come up with a zinger. Some of my friends could zing people and shut them up and have the whole audience rolling with them. Chris Rock was one of those. And Adam Sandler was pretty decent with that.

CONAN: You were in standup about the same time they were.


CONAN: And did you learn from them as you watched them on stage?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I had such a different approach to comedy than they did. Mine was more - mine has always been more through acting and creating characters. Theirs was jokes. You know what I mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And I would go up there and do sketches and scenes and stuff like that. And people wouldn't know what to do, how to respond to me. That's why I moved out of comedy clubs and into performance art, where they could deal with my - with the thing that I was creating.

CONAN: And where if they threw a bottle you could work it right into the act.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I would drink it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I would need the booze.

CONAN: John Leguizamo thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: A pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: John Leguizamo's new book is “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life.” John Leguizamo, he joined us today from our bureau in New York.

When we come back from a short break, how the O.J. Simpson controversy shows that shame is alive and well in America. Plus, the first transgendered character on daytime television. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.