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Lou Diamond Phillips

Lou Diamond Phillips

Lou in 1999
Category: Film
Category II: Theater
Region: Coastal
City: Flower Bluff

When Lou Diamond Phillips packed his bag to head for L.A. for his role as Ritchie Valens in "La Bamba," he told his acting teacher he'd be back. "No, you won't," his teacher said. "This is it. You stay there and do the next thing."

It was a shock to Phillips who, for four years, had been teaching classes in Dallas for $100 a week and doing occasional one-day roles on TV and in films. Starring in "La Bamba," and the fame that came afterward, changed his life.

"It was a time of change, a time of readdressing and re-evaluating what my life is about," he says.

"My life may change but hopefully I haven't. I believe people change and grow. You cannot accept input from the world, knowledge - even sometimes sad and disillusioning knowledge - without adjusting your perspective. But the things I learned as a kid from my father still apply. You treat people the way you want to be treated. You don't lie. You mean what you say. And you're nice," Phillips says.

Lou and Kelly It's all a matter of balance, he thinks. Sometimes that's difficult to maintain in a field like acting where it takes more than the ability to perform to make an impression.

"It's two different talents," he says. "The talent to do the job is one thing. The talent to take the rejection is another. When I teach I try to instill in my students that attitude. No matter what anybody says about your work, you do it the best you can. After that, it's a matter of opinion."

Phillips has known he wanted to act ever since he was in the sixth grade and wrote a play "ripping off," as he says, the "Peanuts" characters.

Phillips was born in the Philippines but left before he was a year old. His biological father, Gerald Upchurch, died when he was 2. George Phillips, a Naval aircraft mechanic, is Lou's step-father. He and his family returned to the Philippines in 1972 and stayed two more years. Phillips was mostly 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, as he graduated 4th in his high school class. Both his parents and his teachers had hoped that he would direct his talents toward medicine or the law. 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.

He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Texas and continued to study drama with Adam Roarke in Dallas. 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 in Fort Worth 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.

Lou as Ritchie Valens His portrayal of doomed '50s rocker Ritchie Valens won him acclaim. His next role, that of a troubled gangleader who is reluctantly inspired to change by a charismatic math teacher in Stand and Deliver (1988) -- which was actually finished before La Bamba's release -- and his portrayal of young outlaw Jose Chavez Y Chavez in Young Guns (1988) made it seem that Phillips youthful prediction that he would become a major star would come true. But then Phillips showed up in a long line of box-office and direct-to-video bombs and he disappeared into obscurity and he seemed destined to remain there for the rest of his career.

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.

"My last name is Phillips because my father's Anglo and that's all the explanation that's needed in today's world, where so many people are of different ethnic backgrounds." He is part Indian - and part Filipino and part Spanish, Chinese, Scottish, Irish and Hawaiian.

He says he identifies with the Filipino part of him because of his mother and "all her sisters," but he also has a deep respect for the Native American part of him.

Lou as the King of Siam 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.

"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."


Born: Feb. 17, 1962 Birthplace: Kuby Point, Philippines
Nee: Lou Upchurch Named for Lou Diamond, Sgt., USMC
Daughters: Wife: Kelly Phillips
Isabella Patricia & Grace Moorea b. Oct. 5, 1997 (twins)
third daughter b. mid Sept. 1999

1988: Independent Spirit: Best Supporting Actor, Stand and Deliver
1996: Outer Critics Circle: Outstanding Debut of an Actor, The King & I
1996: Theatre World Award: The King and I
1996: Blockbuster Award for performance in Courage Under Fire
He received the Oxam America award for his dedication toward ending world hunger (November 18, 1993)

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Photos from Onlineusa. Bio compiled and adapted from Texas Monthly, and The Fresno Bee.