March 17, 2008 12:00 PM

When he’s not doting on his TV family, the actor helps inner-city kids get a chance to experience Shakespeare

“Acting is a wonderful vehicle for healing and expanding your sense of self,” says Tony Plana, America Ferrera’s loving dad on the ABC hit Ugly Betty (returning with new episodes April 24). He’s father to a vital theater program too: East L.A. Classic Theatre, which he co-founded in 1992, is dedicated to instilling that feeling in kids through Shakespeare productions performed by minority casts. Among recent shows: a mariachi Much Ado About Nothing and a zoot suit Romeo and Juliet. “We’ve got kids who’ve never gone to the beach,” let alone the theater, says Plana (right, with Ferrera), 55. “They’ve never heard the word play.”

The Cuban-born Plana, who came to the U.S. when he was 8, got his first professional stage role in 1977. “The movies didn’t feel like a place I belonged,” he says. “I didn’t see a lot of Latinos there, didn’t see a lot of role models.” Now he can count himself as one. Says Ana Ortiz, who plays his oldest daughter on Betty: “I tell him, ‘You better run for office.’ He’s like, ‘I have no time. I’m too busy saving the world.'”

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