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John Leguizamo Biography


Home > Actors > L > Leguizamo, John > Biography


Birth Name: John Leguizamo
Born: 07/22/1964
Birth Place: Colombia


John Leguizamo was born on July 22, 1964, in Bogota, Columbia and moved to New York City when he was five years old. There, his mother and father, once an aspiring film director who had studied at the famed Italian studio Cinecitta, took service and factory jobs and began working their way up the ladder towards the American dream. Leguizamo and his younger brother, Sergio, were among the only Latino kids in their Jackson Heights neighborhood, and from a very early age, he developed his fast-talking and tall tales in an effort to be accepted among his Indian, Dominican and Chinese schoolmates. Every other year, Leguizamo's family moved to a new apartment and he had to reinvent himself for a whole new crowd of unforgiving neighborhood kids. It was not enough to keep the born comedian out of trouble - his shoplifting did not help - and his parents tried everything to get their son to settle down including sending him to stay with suburban families during summers through the Fresh Air Fund program, sending him back to Columbia to live with relatives while in his teens. They also enrolled him at the no-nonsense High School for Business Careers in Manhattan.

Leguizamo's father built a career as a real estate broker and his mother as a bank manager, putting poverty behind the family by the time Leguizamo graduated from high school, at which time a teacher suggested that Leguizamo "try acting instead of acting out." He was accepted into New York University and reinvented himself yet again, the only Latino in his drama program. He had spent a childhood frustrated that the few Latinos he had ever seen on film and TV were peripheral characters holding guns or dealing drugs, and he was inspired to put the stories of his cultural experience in the front and center. His first outlet for energetic tales of the old neighborhood was stand-up comedy, and he began gaining stage experience as a solo comic and learning to work with a group as part of the improv comedy troupe, First Amendment. In addition to honing his natural comedic chops, Leguizamo received his first dramatic training, and a part in an NYU student film which led to a small recurring role as a drug dealer on "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-1990) and roles in a pair of forgotten independent films.

Leguizamo dropped out of NYU before obtaining a degree, but he worked tirelessly on the experimental stages of downtown New York, honing a style that was more narrative and theatrical than punchline-oriented stand-up. In 1989, he debuted his first one-man show, "Mambo Mouth," and won acclaim for his hyperactive portrayals of seven different characters including a macho public-access talk show host, a transvestite and a 13-year-old homeboy called "The Sperminator." The new buzz generated around the multi-talented actor led to his first string of Hollywood film appearances, and he gained notice for his performance as the indecisive soldier bullied by Sean Penn into raping a Vietnamese woman in Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War" (1989). Roles as a terrorist and a Mexican bandito in "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" and "Revenge" (1990) seriously underutilized Leguizamo's "virtuosic range," however his craft was recognized with an invitation to perform a run of "Mambo Mouth" at New York's Orpheum Theater, where he won an Obie and an Outer Critic's award.

At that time, there remained few meaty roles for Latino males in mainstream film, and while Leguizamo turned many of the drug dealing/street hood offers, he did take a small role as a gun-toting thug in "Regarding Henry" (1991) before turning out an excellent indie film performance as a sensitive supermarket clerk undecided about his future in Joseph B. Vasquez's refreshingly intelligent buddy film, "Hangin' With the Homeboys" (1991). "Super Mario Bros." (1993), a critical and commercial flop based on the popular Nintendo game, was to have been Leguizamo's entrance into leading man parts, but proved to be a career embarrassment that was soon overshadowed by his second award-winning stage show, "Spic-o-Rama." More of a narrative play than a series of unconnected character sketches like "Mambo Mouth," Leguizamo metamorphosed into half a dozen people from a single Latino household, giving each one center stage to explain their worldview. Again Leguizamo received raves for his electric energy and stage presence, earning a Drama Desk Award and four Cable Ace awards when it was produced for HBO the following year.

Leguizamo scored one of his better film roles in Brian De Palma's "Carlito's Way" (1994), playing quintessential slime ball Benny Blanco ("...from the Bronx") in a small but pivotal role. By now, TV execs had come calling, wanting to package Leguizamo into a sitcom, but he held out for something better suited to his talent of creating memorable and outrageous comedic characters. Fox launched the sketch comedy show "House of Buggin'" in 1995, with Leguizamo acting as executive producer-creator-writer and star for what was purported to be America's first Latin-American sketch comedy show. Hailed as a Hispanic "In Living Color," the uneven series received excellent reviews, but lackluster ratings led to its unceremonious cancellation after only one season. Sadly, it might have been a runaway hit if had debuted 10 years later. Leguizamo returned to features with the successful drag comedy "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995) in which he teamed up with Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes in the drag road comedy and walked away - on high heels, no less - with the best notices of the three, including a Golden Globe nomination.

Leguizamo teamed with Snipes again the following year, playing his agent in Tony Scott's "The Fan" (1996), and turned in a macho Latin gangster interpretation of Tybalt in Baz Lurhmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996). He co-founded Lower East Side Productions and rolled out his first co-produced feature "The Pest" (1997) the following year, but despite Leguizamo's star talent, the high octane cat-and-mouse comedy missed the mark. He followed up with a nearly unrecognizable role in a prosthetic fat suit as evil Clown, Devil's emissary in "Spawn" (1997) adapted from the Todd MacFarlane comic, and garnered the best reviews of anyone in the dark, violent picture. Returning to New York's famed experimental theater P.S. 122, where both his previous one-man productions had their genesis, Leguizamo hit the stage again for "Freak: A Semi-Demi-Quasi-Autobiographical Comedy" (1997). Featuring 39 characters, "Freak" opened on Broadway in February of 1998 to much critical praise and earned him two Tony nominations. Leguizamo admitted hiding behind costumes in his first two outings, but with "Freak," he presented his most personal portrait, what he called his "emancipation proclamation." At its center, the violent, frustrating relationship with his father gave "Freak" a depth the downtown shows had lacked. But in the end, it was the warm portrait of his mother as a woman who finds her inner strength that gave the material its heart.

Like Leguizamo's previous one man shows, "Freak" was adapted for a 1998 HBO comedy special; this time winning an Emmy Award with Spike Lee at the helm. Leguizamo later rejoined Lee for his gritty New York portrait film, "Summer of Sam" (1999). In one of Leguizamo's stronger dramatic performances, he played a mentally challenged young man who witnesses the murder of his mother in the little-seen "King of the Jungle" (2000) before a much wider seen supporting role as the height-challenged artist Toulouse Lautrec in Baz Luhrman's phenomenal hit musical "Moulin Rouge!" (2001). For both of these roles, Leguizamo was nominated for an ALMA (American Latino Media award). He continued his strong run of material with an executive producer role on the biopic of poet Miguel Pinero, "Pinero" (2001), and the Broadway debut of a new stage show, "Sexaholix." The show was more akin to a traditional stand-up show, with Leguizamo helming a microphone and reflecting on his romantic relationships past and his new status as a father. Despite the more standard presentation, the show delivered Leguizamo's revered physicality and high-octane performance style.

Hollywood continued to offer less than stellar opportunities for Leguizamo, though the actor tried to bring as much life as he could to roles as more drug dealers in dramas "Spun" (2002) and "Empire" (2002), in which he took the leads. The actor finally turned a corner into a new and very successful area with his hilarious voice characterization of Sid the Sloth in DreamWorks CGI-animated family hit, "Ice Age,"(2002). That year, he was given the Entertainer of the Year Award from the ALMAs. He broadened his horizons even further by directing the film "Undefeated" (2003) for HBO. Leguizamo also starred in the feature about a boxer trying to fight his way out of Queens. Later that year, he brought "Sexaholix" back to the stage at the Broadway Theater.

In his first Spanish language feature, Leguizamo shone in the starring role of a sleazy news reporter in the little seen thriller "Cronicas" (2004), produced by Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. He returned to the mainstream screen in the remake "Assault on Precinct 13" (2004), where he essayed another fast-talking junkie to moderately good reception by critics and audiences. The 2005 rehash of the famed 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners" (2005) did not find audiences nearly as forgiving and the movie was blasted by critics who complained about a lack of chemistry between characters and a dearth of laughs, despite overwhelming comedic talent.

Leguizamo continued to explore new realms of entertainment, so in 2005, joined the cast of the popular medical drama "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009), playing an ambitious and visionary doctor plagued with personal problems. The doctor's firing was a relief to Leguizamo, who did find the series a good match for his sensibilities. After an unexpected but enjoyable turn as a cocky renegade in George Romero's "Land of the Dead" (2005), Leguizamo revived Sid the Sloth for "Ice Age: The Meltdown" (2006), the wildly successful sequel that reunited Sid, Manny the Wooly Mammoth (Ray Romano), Diego, the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Scrat, the prehistoric squirrel (Chris Wedge) in a quest to find Manny a mate.

Back to indie film, Leguizamo was one of group of friends realizing that their adolescence is coming to an end in Edward Burns' well-received "The Groomsmen" (2006). Leguizamo took a second stab at series television with Spike TV's first original drama, "The Kill Point" (Spike, 2007), an action drama about a group of ex-Marines pulling off a bank heist. The show took some critical hits, but Leguizamo and co-star Donnie Wahlberg earned the lion's share of the praise before its cancellation. That year, he also took top billing in the critically lambasted indie "The Babysitters," where he was miscast as a suburban executive dad who inadvertently jump-starts a call girl business after fooling around with his teen sitter.

In 2007, Leguizamo had a supporting role in the disappointing screen adaptation of "Love in the Time of Cholera" (2007), which was disappointing not only to lovers of the book, but to Leguizamo as well, who had been fighting for these kinds of "every day culture" Latino roles since the start of his career. Leguizamo continued full-force with half a dozen film roles in 2008, kicking off with the indie "The Take," where he played an armored car truck driver and family man who suffers mental trauma after he is shot during a robbery. The low budget thriller received only a limited release but critics loved it and it proved to be one of Leguizamo's strongest starring roles, though it was sadly little-seen. Leguizamo's next appearance was a co-starring role as a teacher and one of a group who escape a town seemingly gone mad in M. Night Shyamalan's creepy "The Happening" (2008). Later in 2008, Leguizamo appeared in the Robert De Niro/Al Pacino actioner "Righteous Kill" (2008) and as part of the ensemble cast of the Latino holiday comedy, "Humboldt Park" (2008). From there, he joined a Broadway revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" (2008), began a tour of "John Leguizamo Live!" (2009), reprised Sid the Sloth for "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (2009), and starred in the horror thriller "Vanishing on Seventh Street" (2010). Following a small supporting role in the surprising hit "The Lincoln Lawyer" (2011), Leguizamo returned to the Broadway stage to perform in another one-man show, "Ghetto Klown" (2011).