If he’s not the man of a thousand faces, he at least has “a generic puss”—and more than a dozen high-quality toupees. “I’m lucky I’m bald,” says the actor, flipping through a scrapbook full of clippings that show his constantly changing look. So what if Hector Elizondo, 53, isn’t a household name—”They call me Alisandro, Alexander, Alexandras, Alonzo, Babaganzo, I have a list,” he admits—you’ve seen him in, well, just about everything. He was the cigar-toting cop who took lessons in dressing from American Gigolo Richard Gere. He played Tom Hanks’s ad agency boss in Nothing in Common. And these days he’s swiftly stealing his Pretty Woman scenes as the Beverly Hills hotel manager who helps hooker Julia Roberts turn from sin to Cinderella.
“Hector had to score fast in this role because he didn’t have a lot of screen time,” says director Garry Marshall, who has cast him in six films. And score Elizondo did, literally. “When we polled the early audiences, Julia and Richard Gere tested in the upper 25 percent in popularity,” explains Marshall, “but Hector tested 65 percent—like a leading man.” Even the real leading man was impressed. “He made the character somehow British and Latin at the same time,” praises Gere. “Totally efficient and “street,’ with a big heart.”
Right now, it looks like Easy Street. “I’m still reeling,” Elizondo says, kicking off his Birkenstocks in the living room of the San Fernando Valley house he shares with his wife, former actress Carolee Campbell. “I can’t believe the film is doing so well. I guess there’s a collective craving for dreams coming true.”
Of course, Hector’s been making dreams come true since before he could spell the word. The son of Martin Elizondo, an accountant of Basque-Puerto Rican descent, and his wife, Carmen, Hector grew up entertaining his Manhattan neighbors. “They would always say, ‘Sing, Hector, sing.’ For the longest time I thought my name was Hector Sing.” Blues great W.C. Handy heard the 10-year-old Hector sing at a public school assembly and helped him land a part in television’s 1948 kiddie series Oky Doky Ranch. He got even more acting practice on the Upper West Side, “a big cultural bouillabaisse,” he remembers, where “you told stories to get along and survive.”
At 21, he was a City College dropout playing the conga drums in a New York City nightclub, when a choreographer, appreciating Elizondo’s musical moves, suggested that he audition for the Ballet Arts company at Carnegie Hall. “Suddenly, there I am at the barre, doing this,” says Hector, jumping up and lifting his left leg into the air. After three years, though, he reached his leaping limit. “They work once a year for $100, and they’re all skinny. The girls were only into dancing, so it was useless to try and score.”
He had precious little free time anyway: When his teenage marriage to a neighborhood girl went sour, he took on the care of their 1-year-old son, Rodd. “I was a single parent in 1957,” he recalls. “I had no role model. I couldn’t have done it without my parents and my sister.” In 1962, hoping to provide Rodd with more conventional family ties, he married a young secretary. They split a year later. Rodd survived all the changes and turned out to be “a terrific guy,” says Hector. Now a preschool teacher in San Francisco, Rodd calls his father “my best friend. Really, he was so young when I was born, we grew up together.”
After his brief ballet career, Elizondo moved back toward acting and found his true love in an Actors Studio class—appropriately, with Shakespearean clashes. “Carolee and I instantly disliked each other,” he says. “I thought she was haughty. She thought I was haughty.” Yet they eventually became “two very different peas living in the same pod,” says Carolee. They married in 1969. “No one made me laugh like she did,” recalls Hector. Or vice-versa. When they flew to L.A. to meet her relatives, Hector lovingly embraced the wrong group of people at the gate.
During their early days together in New York City, Hector worked in films and onstage. He won a 1971 Obie award playing God—in the guise of a Puerto Rican steam room attendant—in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath. Carolee became a well-known soap opera actress and won an Emmy for her role in an NBC drama, This Is My Son, in 1977. Though the couple, who moved to L.A. in 1983, still keep a Manhattan apartment, Carolee long ago walked away from acting. “She looked into the future and didn’t like the roles she saw for women on TV,” says Hector. Today, Campbell, 53, runs a small publishing company, Ninja Press.
His wife’s passion, though, is for river rafting, and some weeks Carolee takes off for the currents alone, while Hector amuses himself at home. “There’s never any sense of, ‘Why is she leaving?’ ” she says. “I’m blessed. He has a great sense of self.” But curiously little vanity. “I don’t believe actors are artists,” Hector scoffs. “The true artist is the writer, the creator. You can’t play Mozart without Mozart, no matter how good you are.” On the other hand, he’s confident in his craft. “I make my money being believable. You can’t see me acting. That’s my trick.”
That’s enough for Disney executives, who are developing a TV series based on his Pretty Woman character. But if Hector Elizondo, wearing a semipermanent TV toupee, suddenly does become a household name, don’t expect a drastic change. “Even if I’m a millionaire, I’ll never have a swimming pool, I’ll never have a foreign car,” he swears. “I drive a Ford, for god-sake.” Like Hector, it gets good mileage.
—Tim Allis, Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles