Born in Los Angeles, Olmos grew up in Boyle Heights where he was inundated by drugs, crime and street gangs, but also a wealth of cultural and ethnic diversity not found in most suburban neighborhoods. Surrounded by family, Olmos had a colorful history; his maternal great-grandparents published a radical newspaper during the Mexican Revolution. Meanwhile, his mother, Eleanor, insisted that all her children be well-educated, and his father, Pedro - who earned his high school diploma at age 21 after leaving Mexico City to immigrate to the United States - worked as a slaughterhouse worker and welder. When he was eight, his parents divorced; it was a traumatic event that would have a profound effect on both his life and work ethic. He soon learned that personal discipline could alleviate his loneliness, while throwing himself head-first into his efforts gained him respect and success. He also submerged himself in baseball, becoming a Golden State batting champion when he was 14. More importantly, the sport gave him the opportunity to see his father more regularly, as the senior Olmos loved to attend the games.After graduation, he earned his associate's degree in sociology at East Los Angeles College while singing and playing piano in a band he helped form, Eddie James and the Pacific Ocean. Self-admittedly a terrible singer, Olmos continued his dual life of student musician at California State University, where he studied psychology and criminology. He also began taking theater to improve his singing, but he soon discovered that he had greater ease projecting the spoken word. Not long after, he married Kaija Keel, daughter of musical film star Howard Keel, and had two children. To support his new family, Olmos took a job delivering antique furniture while, at the same time, trying to pursue his acting career. In the mid-1970s, he began landing guest spots on "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980), "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78) and "CHiPs" (NBC, 1977-1983). In 1978, he landed the part that gained him notice, playing El Pachuco in the premiere performance of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit," a musical drama about the famous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in 1942, where 22 Latino men were wrongfully indicted and tried on charges of murder. After runs at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and on Broadway, Olmos earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and a Tony nomination.Thanks to the "Zoot Suit" recognition, Olmos began landing bigger and better roles, many of which were of varying ethnicity, thanks to his own diverse background. After reviving El Pachuco for the film version of "Zoot Suit" (1981), he played the leader of a group of Native Americans who help a New York City detective (Albert Finney) track a supernatural species killing Manhattan residents in "Wolfen" (1981), then had a small role as a ruthless, Hungarian-speaking cop with a passion for origami in "Blade Runner" (1982). He next starred in "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" (1984), playing a Mexican cowhand in 1901 who is sought for arrest after being mistaken for a similar-looking criminal. Olmos had intense passion for the project, which was originally aired on the PBS series, "American Playhouse," and wanted to see the film theatrically distributed. He spent two years and plenty of his own money to generate interest, mainly by showing it every weekend in a rented theater while turning down several acting jobs. The film was eventually picked up by Embassy Pictures.His characteristic perseverance paid off again with his next project, playing the dark and ambiguous Lieutenant Martin Castillo on "Miami Vice." Series creator Michael Mann called to make an offer, but Olmos immediately rejected the part, citing his need for a non-exclusive contract so he would be free to make films while working on "Vice." Mann called back several minutes later, offering more money. Again, Olmos declined. The negotiations continued for several more phone calls, until Mann came back with a non-exclusive contract which was unheard of back then, even for television's biggest stars. Meanwhile, Olmos spent five seasons as the taciturn police lieutenant with a shaded CIA past whose black-and-white worldview sharply contrasted with the flashy, pastel style of his two undercover narcotics officers, Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Though Olmos enjoyed the series during its first season, he became increasingly disenchanted with the formulaic plots and stereotypical treatment of women. Nonetheless, Olmos remained a fixture throughout the show's five-season run, continuing to unleash his silent and deadly stare at Crockett and Tubbs to great effect.Despite having a non-exclusive contract, Olmos appeared only a few times outside the confines of "Miami Vice." After a small role in the religious-themed comedy "Saving Grace" (1986), he played the second husband of an Italian immigrant (Sophia Loren) struggling to raise her family in "Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim" (NBC, 1988). But perhaps his most widely-recognized performance of his big screen career came with "Stand and Deliver" (1988), a forthright and triumphant look at Jaime Escalante, a real-life teacher in East Los Angeles who manages to transform a group of supposedly at risk Latino students into math scholars able to pass the Advanced Placement exam in calculus. Olmos delivered a strong, heart-warming performance that earned him numerous critical kudos and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Also in 1988, Olmos founded Latino Public Broadcasting, a not-for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that funded fictional and non-fictional projects addressing social and cultural issues of interest to Latinos.After "Miami Vice" left the airwaves quietly in 1989, Olmos settled into a series of roles in features and on television that were of redeeming social and political value; but it was these roles which also largely left him out of the mainstream spotlight. A supporting part as a gypsy in the true story of boxer Salamo Arouche in "Triumph of the Spirit" (1989) was followed by the lead role of a former baseball player looking to prove himself as the coach of the then-California Angels in "Talent for the Game" (1991). Olmos then made his directorial debut with "American Me" (1992), a prison drama in which he also starred as a street gang leader running the drug trade from behind bars who vows to lead the straight life upon his release. After playing an incarcerated man who returns home to resume his cock-fighting business in "Roosters" (1993), Olmos journeyed into erotic thriller territory in "Mirage" (1994), playing a down-on-his-luck former cop tasked with keeping watch on the beautiful, but troublesome wife (Sean Young) of a local real estate developer.Back on the small screen, Olmos portrayed Jose Menendez, a controlling father and chairman of Carolco Entertainment who is murdered along with his wife, Kitty (Beverly D'Angelo), by his two sons (Damian Chapa and Travis Fine), in the real-life murder mystery "Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills" (CBS, 1994). Olmos contributed his gruff voice to narrate "My Family" ("Mi Familia") (1995), a period drama set in the 1950s about three generations of the Sanchez family, who migrated from Mexico to California in order to live the American Dream. He next co-starred in "Selena" (1997), playing Abraham Quintanilla, the demanding, but ultimately loving father of would-be pop sensation Selena Quintanilla (Jennifer Lopez), whose life and career were tragically cut short when she was murdered by a disturbed fan. He co-starred in the little-seen historical thriller, "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca" (1997), a fictional take on the real-life investigation of the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, followed with the upbeat children's fantasy "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" (1998). Despite the consistent work, it was clear that Olmos was on a severe downtick in his career at that time.After voicing the Chief in "The Road to El Dorado" (2000) and playing a police detective in the lurid thriller "Gossip" (2000), Olmos left the feature world for several years to focus once again on television. He returned to regular series duties on the short-lived drama, "American Family" (PBS, 2001-04), playing a widowed family patriarch and East Los Angeles barber struggling to contend with his children - most of whom are grown and have lost touch with the family's origins and identity. Meanwhile, his off-screen political involvement landed him in jail for 20 days after he was arrested in 2001 for taking part in the protests in Vieques, Puerto Rico against the U.S. Navy for their bombing target practices. Once he was through with "American Family," Olmos landed perhaps his most lauded and recognized role, playing Admiral William Adama on the acclaimed sci-fi series, "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi Channel, 2004-09). Adama reclaims command of the retiring Battlestar Galactica when the Cylons wage all-out war on humans, leaving behind less than 50,000 who struggle to evade the enemy while trying to find Earth. The series was acclaimed for its scorching parallels to the war on terrorism, torture, religious fundamentalism and living under suspicion.During the show's four-season run, Olmos was offered the opportunity to direct a few episodes, revitalizing a passion that translated into landing several feature directing projects in development. On screen, he returned to the feature world with a supporting role as an inept police captain in "Splinter" (2007), a low-budget thriller directed by his son, Michael D. Olmos. He donned his admiral's uniform again for "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" (Sci Fi Channel, 2007), a two-hour made-for-cable movie that served more as way to maintain interest for season four of "Battlestar Galactica," which was slightly delayed following the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08. Meanwhile, he co-produced, directed and appeared in a supporting role in the made-for-cable movie "Walkout" (HBO, 2006), which depicted the events surrounding the famed 1968 Chicano Blowouts in East Los Angeles. After voicing Diablo in the animated "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (2007), Olmos finished out a strong run on "Battlestar Galactica," as the series ended to great acclaim in 2009. Back on the big screen, he appeared as himself in Casey Affleck's odd Joaquin Phoenix mocumentary "I'm Still Here" (2010) and played Daily Sentinel managing editor Mike Axford in "The Green Hornet" (2011).
All Apple Originals.
New Apple Originals every month. Watch on Apple devices, streaming platforms and smart TVs.