TALK ABOUT PATIENCE. In 1986 Lou Diamond Phillips was a 24-year-old Fort Worth stage actor plucked from obscurity to play singer Ritchie Valens in the film La Bamba. Part Filipino, part Hawaiian, part Cherokee, part Scots-Irish, he seemed destined to become one of the new crop of ethnic movie stars, a perfect actor for the dawn of America’s multicultural age. Yet his career never took off: Over the next decade, he was relegated to mostly small parts in second-rate movies and was so hungry for work that he often returned to Dallas to act in straight-to-video Christian films. This year, however, Phillips came back with a vengeance. Plucked from obscurity once again to play the King of Siam in the Broadway revival of The King and I, he won rave reviews and a Tony nomination. He also turned in a stellar supporting performance in the Denzel Washington–Meg Ryan movie Courage Under Fire, generating talk of an Oscar nomination.
“If there’s one thing I can say for certain, it’s that I stayed in the game, worked hard, made no enemies, and waited for my chance,” a cheerful Phillips says after receiving a standing ovation from a packed house at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. He pulls off his glittering tunic, throws on jeans, boots, and a T-shirt, and heads down the street to a steakhouse, where the maître d’, owner, and waiters greet him reverently, as if he’s a mob boss. “It’s amazing,” says Phillips. “All this attention for a guy who doesn’t even sing all that well.”
How Lou Diamond Phillips got to Broadway—and did it by taking a role forever linked in the public’s mind with Yul Brynner—is a curious story, to say the least. In his official biography, which is printed in the King and I program, Phillips reveals his entire professional stage history to be a single production in La Jolla, California, and a few plays at Stage West, a tiny theater company in Fort Worth. Fort Worth! Doesn’t he wish he could have come up with something better? “I cherish my time at Stage West as much as anything else I’ve done in my career,” he says and promptly proves the point by telling two hours’ worth of stories about his years there.
The son of a Naval aircraft mechanic, Phillips was raised in the town of Flour Bluff, outside Corpus Christi. He was a popular, intelligent student who received scholarships to Yale University and the U.S. Naval Academy. But he astounded his parents and teachers by announcing he was going to a suburban commuter college, the University of Texas at Arlington, because that’s where his high school buddies were accepted. “Hey,” he says today, “we decided we had four more years together before life happened.”
He starred in some campus drama club productions (“It was not like there were that many guys competing for parts”), then joined a comedy troupe that performed in front of inebriated audiences late at night at Fort Worth bars. “People told me I had an exotic look and an intensity on stage. I said, ‘Oh, okay.’” The more he acted, however, the more he became convinced he could be a star—to the point of behaving a little obsessively. He painted an entire wall of his apartment black and wrote “Fame” on it, in honor of the movie about students at New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. When Sigourney Weaver appeared at a function in Dallas, Phillips talked his way backstage to tell her that they would do a movie together. He borrowed a bellhop’s uniform so he could meet Robert De Niro in his hotel room.
It was during his time at Stage West that Phillips heard about the nationwide search for a young actor to star in La Bamba. His ethnic look—and a completely shameless audition in which he strutted around the stage and pretended to play the guitar—got him the role. But after that brief fling with stardom, he learned his ethnicity could also be a liability. He won some minor roles in mildly successful films—most notably Stand and Deliver (1987) and Young Guns (1988)—but more typically he worked on low-budget bombs, either as an actor (Disorganized Crime and First Power) or as a director (Dangerous Touch and Sioux City). His lowest point came when he was cast as an Indian in Dark Wind, a dog of a movie based on a Tony Hillerman novel. Native American groups protested the movie because Phillips is not a full-blooded Indian.
But last year a casting director realized Phillips had the perfect look to be King Mongkut in a revival of The King and I. For his audition, he walked into the room, took off his shirt and shoes, folded his arms, peered regally at the producers, and said, “Let’s do a scene.” Phillips so impressed Mary Rodgers, whose late father, Richard Rodgers, was the musical’s composer, that she whispered, “He’s the one.” Not long after, he read for film director Edward Zwick, who was looking for an actor fierce enough to stare down Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire, which was going to be shot in Austin and El Paso. He got that part too, his first major studio role in years.
Phillips is reveling in his newly charmed life. He’s on a first-name basis with his hero De Niro (he calls him Bobby). He’s happily picking over the sort of scripts that never got sent to him in the past decade. Yet he remains utterly boyish and uncynical. After his first marriage failed—his wife left him to begin a relationship with singer Melissa Etheridge—Phillips met a model named Kelly Preston (not the model Kelly Preston who is John Travolta’s wife) at a Hollywood pool hall. They married in April 1994 and now live with their three Dobermans and one rottweiler in a New York apartment. They’ll stay there until next April, when Phillips’ contract with The King and I expires; after that, there is talk of his doing the musical in London.
After he has finished his dinner, Phillips throws down a huge tip for the waiter and heads for the door. Outside, a cabbie honks the horn and waves. “My God,” Phillips says, “it’s a great feeling when opportunity comes back around.”