Ever since starring six years ago as goon drug dealer Manny Rivera in Brian De Palma’s gory Scarface, actor Steven Bauer’s onscreen persona has sometimes threatened to overtake him. “Without really wanting to be, I was embraced,” he says. “Almost every day of my life since that film, I’ve had to run from urban drug dealers. I’m a hero to them. ‘Hey, Manny, where’s the stuff?’ It was an entry into that world. It gave me a membership card.”
Beginning this week on NBC, Bauer, 33, will finally be able to break out of that sordid typecasting, thanks to his starring role as slain drug enforcement agent Kiki Camarena in NBC’s Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, a three-part miniseries about the life of the U.S. agent whose murder in Mexico became a rallying point in this country’s war on narcotics.
Camarena’s 1985 torture and execution at the hands of drug traffickers and corrupt Mexican police was notorious not only for its barbarity, but also for its disturbing aftermath: There have been allegations of obstruction of justice within Mexico’s government, which only last month convicted and sentenced drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero to 40 years in prison for masterminding the murder.
“Kiki had the guts to go after the big guys,” says the Cuban-born Bauer. “He grew up in the streets of Calexico with an insight that I didn’t have until I went into the drug culture.” Admitting his own one-time flirtation with cocaine, Bauer says that “I was carelessly casual about it. It was as natural as the ingestion of liquor. But it hurt me in more than a few ways. I behaved irresponsibly when I should have been professional.”
Bauer’s version of events is corroborated by his first wife, actress Melanie Griffith, who as a 24-year-old married Bauer in 1982, five years after her first marriage to actor Don Johnson fizzled. “We were wild,” she says, “but it was more me than him. He was doing it too, but he didn’t have a problem with it He tried to get me not to do drugs.” These days, Bauer is clearly on the right side of the law, to the point that, during research for his role as Camarena, he accompanied undercover DEA agents to a nighttime rendezvous with two Mexican drug dealers. “It went much further than [executive producer] Michael Mann or I expected,” says Bauer, who watched helplessly as the dealers reached for their guns at one point. “I was scared to death.”
In fact, for most of his life the drug underworld was largely foreign turf to Bauer, the elder son of a Cuban pilot and his schoolteacher wife who fled Castro’s revolution for Miami with their two boys when Steven was 3. After Scarface he sometimes found himself “surrounded by drug dealers—the vampires. But I never saw that side of life until I was in my 20s. I was from the suburbs. Still, the darker side held a real fascination, experimenting with drugs or just associating with those people.”
Born Esteban Echevarria (later changed “because it was a real albatross. It immediately said, ‘I am different. I’m not an American’ “), Bauer soaked up U.S. culture—and an early interest in acting—from movies. After parts in college theater and a handful of TV roles, he found himself cast in a 1981 made-for-TV movie, She’s in the Army Now, starring Griffith, whom he had admired since her mid-’70s appearances in Night Moves and The Drowning Pool.
“We just started spending time together on the set,” says Bauer. “It was pretty quick. I moved into her place in Malibu.” That year the two headed for New York City to study with renowned drama coach Stella Adler but finally came to the conclusion that their professional future lay west after all. On his way to catch a plane back to L.A., Bauer received the providential call from his agent that eventually led to his success as Manny Rivera in Scarface. At the time, “I had $8 or $9 in my pocket,” he recalls. “Total.”
Though hailed by critics and audiences for his Scarface role, Bauer’s career soon nose-dived after his lead in the 1984 clinker Thief of Hearts. “People start looking at you like, ‘Maybe it was him,’ ” says the actor, whose two-year marriage to Griffith was also beginning to crumble. “We didn’t really belong together. There were just too many differences,” says Bauer. “We had one purpose together, I guess, and that was to bring [now 4-year-old son] Alexander into the world.”
“It was tough when Steven and I broke up,” says Melanie. “But we get along great now. He’s a wonderful dad. He and Alexander love each other and spend as much time together as they can.”
Bauer’s parental duties should expand considerably this May, when he and his wife of six months, former model Ingrid Anderson, 28, expect the birth of their first child. In the meantime, now that his personal life is in good order, Bauer hopes that his role as Camarena will resurrect his acting fortunes. “I think Drug Wars will help get my career back on track because of the power of television—and the power of this film,” he says.
If audience reaction from one potentially tough critic is any indication, that may not just be hyperbole. “In the movie, corruption is exposed,” says Kiki’s sister Myra, now a DEA office worker in the California border town of San Y sidro. “It’s as if there’s a reason for everything. Kiki would have been glad that all this is happening because of him.”
—Joanne Kaufman, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles