Colombian-born actor and comedian John Leguizamo has made a career proving that it is possible to be taken seriously both as a raunchy comic performer and a serious dramatic actor. Since 1991, when he won over audiences and critics with his one-man show, the off-Broadway Mambo Mouth, Leguizamo has been working steadily in film, television, and theater. Whether playing lowlife criminals, conflicted womanizers, or flamboyant drag queens, he has impressed viewers with his often sharply satirical characterizations of Latinos, making fun of stereotypes even as he blows them to smithereens.
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Born in Bogota, Colombia, on July 22, 1964, Leguizamo immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four. Deciding that he wanted to go into acting, he studied the craft at New York University and with the legendary Lee Strasberg for one day before Strasberg died. Of his teacher's unexpected departure, Leguizamo later quipped, "I have that effect on people." Leguizamo began his career as a standup comedian in various New York clubs, and debuted on television with a 1986 turn on Miami Vice. His film debut followed in 1989 with a small role in De Palma's Casualties of War.
In 1991, Leguizamo appeared in similarly incidental roles in a number of movies, including Die Hard 2 and Regarding Henry, which cast him as the gunman who shoots Harrison Ford in the head. The same year, however, his career advanced, thanks to both a starring role in Hangin' With the Homeboys and the aforementioned Mambo Mouth. This successful production, in which Leguizamo portrayed seven different Latino characters, played to sold-out theaters and won its star and writer Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards. It was later shown on HBO, where it won a CableACE award. Two years later, Leguizamo returned to the stage, this time with Spic-O-Rama. Another one-man show, it enjoyed a sold-out run in Chicago before relocating to New York, where it won its creator a Drama Desk Award and, when it aired on HBO, four CableACE Awards. That same year, Leguizamo also kept busy in film: A second outing with De Palma, Carlito's Way, resulted in acclaim for his performance as "Benny Blanco from the Bronx," a young punk who brings out the worst in a trying-to-mend-his-ways Al Pacino. The actor then netted additional recognition for his first starring role in a major film, Super Mario Bros. In 1995, Leguizamo created and starred in House of Buggin', a TV comedy-variety show in the style of Fox's In Living Color that was the first show of its kind to feature an all-Latino cast. Despite a number of positive reviews and two Emmy nominations, the show was canceled after a relatively brief run. Meanwhile, Leguizamo's film work was winning him greater recognition: His turn as the flamboyantly trashy Chi Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar netted him a Golden Globe nomination.
Leguizamo continued on a prolific bent, starring in Pest and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and making additional appearances in such films as The Fan (1996), Spawn (1997), and Dr. Dolittle (1998), in which he was cast as the voice of a rat. However, he received his most favorable notices for his continuing stage work, as he made his Broadway debut in 1998 with Freak, a "demi-semi-quasi-pseudo-autobiographical" one-man show directed by Pest co-creator David Bar Katz. The show was a critical and commercial success, and it won an Emmy when it was shown on TV later that year. In 1999, Leguizamo took on a very different role for Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. Playing a womanizer racked with Catholic guilt for cheating on his wife (Mira Sorvino), Leguizamo combined humor and pathos in his characterization of a deeply conflicted man. 1999 also saw Leguizamo branch out into producing, serving as executive producer (and star) of Frank Whaley's directorial debut, Joe the King. Also starring Ethan Hawke, Camryn Manheim, and Val Kilmer, the crime-drama premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a screenwriting award.
Leguizamo co-starred with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio for Baz Luhrmann’s ultra-stylized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet in 2006, and played one half of a happily married couple for the drama Summer of Sam (1999). He reunited with Luhrmann in 2001 for the continued to find success as a supporting actor in Moulin Rouge, an Academy Award winning musical romance starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor. Leguizamo appeared in the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s classic thriller Assault on Precinct 13, and played a gung-ho zombie hunter in zombie guru extraordinaire George Romero’s Land of the Dead the same year. The actor continued to win praise for his work in critically acclaimed films including The Take (2007) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008). 2008 also found Leguizamo co-starring with Mark Wahlberg in The Happening, M. Knight Shymylan’s so-bad-it’s-good thriller following the survivor’s of an epidemic unleashed when plants try to eradicate humanity. He joined the cast of the legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), and worked with Katherine Heigl in the adaptation of Janet Evanovich’s novel One for the Money in 2012. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi