East New York

He’s back home wearing a different uniform

October 31, 2022 Andy Furman
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EAST NEW YORK – He’s back home in Brooklyn. 

And this time, Jimmy Smits is wearing a different kind of uniform.

This time, Jimmy Smits is Chief John Suarez in “East New York” – the new CBS series that airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. The last uniform he wore in Brooklyn was his football jersey at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“Well,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle, “I never actually played on the team. It was one game against New Utrecht.”

Nevertheless, he’s quite excited about the new TV series and happy to be back home in Brooklyn. Specifically, East New York.

“One of my first memories,” he said, “Was the New Lots Boys. They spray painted their names all over the Lavonia Avenue elevated station.”

Smits says the neighborhood is what it always has been, “working class, vibrant and a large immigrant community.”

And he fits right in. Smits’s father, Cornelis Leendert Smits was from Paramaribo, Suriname and was of Dutch descent.

Smits’s mother, Emilina, was Puerto Rican, born in Penuelas.

When Smits was 10 years old, he lived in Puerto Rico for a couple of years. Until then, he did not speak Spanish. During the shooting of the series, Smits admits the neighborhood is, “more socially challenged; which affects everything, including crime.” 

And his character – a police chief in his old neighborhood – fits him like a glove. The series centers on the officers and detectives of the NYPD’s 74th precinct in Brooklyn. 

Smits also reunites with executive producers William Finkelstein and Michael M. Robin, friends from his L.A. Law and NYPD Blue days on the new CBS cop-drama.

But if it weren’t for one Michael Tennenbaum, who knows where Jimmy Smits would be today.

“I started doing plays and acting at George Gershwin Junior High,” he said. 

The school’s name should have been the first clue.

“Then I joined the Drama Club at Jefferson.”

That’s where he met Mickey T, a.k.a. Michael Tennenbaum.

“We were holding auditions for our Spring play,” said Tennenbaum, now 74 and a Drama Professor at Wagner College, told the Eagle. “I was a first-year teacher, and I volunteered to do a show.”

And Jimmy Smits auditioned for Purlie Vicorious, Tennenbaum remembered.

“He (Smits) kind of had a presence on stage, a great look and was more mature than the others,” Tennenbaum said.

It was only one play, but Smits was hooked.

“I often took the kids to the theater,” Tennenbaum said, “and I was in a Graduate Program at Brooklyn College and I remember Jimmy coming to see me perform. I exposed him to the Brooklyn College theater program; and he enrolled.”

East New York, Brooklyn.
Eagle photo by Daniel Cody

The friendship, after all these years isn’t easily forgotten.

“We keep in touch with e-mails,” Tennenbaum said, “and when Jimmy’s in New York we get to see him in shows”

“I’m not at all surprised at his success: he was such a natural. He arrived at a good time for a Hispanic actor,” Tennenbaum said.

And Jimmy Smits has returned the favor.

When the Disney Channel was presenting the Disney Teacher Awards, Smits invited Tennebaum and his wife to Los Angeles to present the award with him.

East New York shows a neighborhood bubbling with distrust and hints of gentrification. Into this tumult is thrown the recently promoted Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood (Amanda Warren), who tried to modernize the 74th precinct approach toward policing and their civilian neighbors.

Jimmy Smits says the main reason he chose to do East New York, “was because it was shot in my old neighborhood,” he said.

“Something was in the stars here,” he says, “Everyday we relive community-challenged people.”

Jimmy Smits is an icon of television and film with 62 credits to is IMDb page. He’s the recipient of one Golden Globe Award for his role on NYPD as well as one Primetime Emmy Award – from a total of 12 nominations – for L.A. Law.

Throughout his career on television, he has garnered 11 Screen Actors Guild Awards winning once in the Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series in 1995 for NYPD Blue.

In 2021, Jimmy Smits was recognized with the 2,696th star on the iconic Los Angeles landmark at 6100 Hollywood Blvd., near Gower Street.

“I’d rather give out meals to the needy,” he says, “than go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’d like to impact the community.

“In success,” he adds, “maybe we can make a difference.”

Jimmy Smits already has.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR

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