By Tom Gliatto
March 25, 2002 12:00 PM

After living in Los Angeles for 15 years, New York City native Esai Morales has come to appreciate the West Coast vibe. “In New York just standing still on the sidewalk is a weird feeling,” says. Morales, now in his second season playing Lt. Tony Rodriguez on ABC’s NYPD Blue (which, despite its title, films mostly in L.A.). “You have this incessant need to do things. Los Angeles is about kicking back, relaxing, your inner child, peace. That’s what my life is about now.”

So how come he’s still trying to cram all his waking hours into a New York minute? Morales, 39, is one of the few actors in prime time tough enough to juggle starring roles in two different series—on both sides of the law. When he’s not busy being Blue (where his intense, straight-from-the-hip Rodriguez has replaced James McDaniel’s intense, somber Lt. Arthur Fancy as head of the 15th precinct’s detective squad), he can be found on the set of PBS’s American Family, a drama about a Hispanic clan in L.A. There he plays Esteban Gonzalez, a reformed ex-con. “My secret,” says Morales, “is that I’m unbelievably focused.”

Offscreen he’s even busier, cramming in both the Blue Softball team and a schedule of political activism that would leave Martin Sheen winded. Along with Family’s Sonia Braga and Blue alum Jimmy Smits, he’s a founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit group pushing to boost the profile of Latinos in entertainment. He has pressed political flesh with everyone from former President George Bush to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), whom he serenaded with “My Melody of Love,” the vintage hit by Bobby “Polish Prince of Pop” Vinton. “Esai is politically savvy,” says Elizabeth Peña, a longtime friend who costarred with him last year on Resurrection Blvd., Showtime’s series about a young Hispanic boxer and his family. “And he’s very connected to the world.”

The Brooklyn-born Morales’s own roots are in Puerto Rico, originally the home of both parents, Esai, 64, a retired welder, and Iris, now in her 60s, a former organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The couple met and married in New York but split up while their son, who spoke only Spanish until age 5, was still a baby. Morales has very little contact with his father. He was raised by his mother (who later remarried and had several more children). Her union work was one of the inspirations for his own activism. “My mother taught me,” he says, “when you go someplace, you leave it better than you found it.” He calls her “the spark of my dreams.”

It was Al Pacino who lit the match to his ambition. After the 12-year-old Morales saw Pacino’s Oscar-nominated performance in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, “I said, ‘This is what I will do for the rest of my life—if the universe accepts it.’ ” His mother thought he was out of his orbit. “Freddie Prinze hadn’t yet taken off, Raul Julia wasn’t a household name,” he says. “It didn’t seem like a place for a young Latin man.” Over his mother’s objections, he applied—and was accepted—to Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts in 1976. “He was gorgeous,” says classmate Peña. “He’d chase me around. Well, not just me—anyone with a skirt.”

After earning stage and TV credentials in New York, he relocated to L.A. and caught Hollywood’s attention with only his first movie, 1983’s Bad Boys, costarring Sean Penn. That was followed by La Bamba, in which he played the brother of doomed pop singer Ritchie Valens, and since then some 40 other roles on film and TV. Last year producer Steven Bochco invited Morales to audition for the pressure-cooker tensions of NYPD Blue. “He’s capable of tremendous volatility but keeps it in check,” says Bochco. “It’s like driving a Ferrari at 30 miles per hour.”

The never-married Morales, who lives in a ranch-style house in the Hollywood Hills, has been slower at romance. “I see myself being a father, hopefully a husband,” he says, “but I’m very gun-shy. The older I get, the further the goalpost.”

Besides, there are other big projects to tackle. Politics? “I’ve thought about it,” he says. “I don’t think I’m ready yet.” Or a film about Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera? “I’ll never lose the sense of being an underdog,” says Morales. “I’m capable of a lot more.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles