New ‘Wing’ man ponders presidential politics

Worthy of attention: Jimmy Smits

Best part of working on TV? “The hiatus. Knowing that you have a definite end date.”

Hardest part of working on TV? “The hours. And as the week progresses into Thursday and Friday, they get later and later.”

Favorite scene of last year? “It wasn’t even mine. Allison Janney was talking to John Spencer about all the personal things in her life.”

Favorite shows? “A bunch of documentaries and stuff on the History Channel.”

Although Jimmy Smits was eager to return as a series regular after a seven-year span, he certainly wasn’t going to jump at the first opportunity.

Smits yearned to embody a character who, like fallen detective Bobby Simone on “NYPD Blue,” didn’t live in a black-and-white world — and neither did the show. He wasn’t interested in starring on a skein that wraps loose ends up at the end of every hour, where character development was secondary to solving crimes.

In other words, the chances of finding Smits on the next “Law & Order” or “CSI” spinoff were nil. He had higher aspirations … such as the presidency.

Well, technically, Smits is Rep. Matthew Santos (D-Texas), a congressman with commander-in-chief ambitions, on NBC’s revitalized “The West Wing.” Before the end of 2005, viewers will find out if Smits sits in the Oval Office, formerly occupied by Martin Sheen.

“West Wing” is “the type of material I’m drawn to, much more than the procedural stuff,” he says.

Smits and “West Wing” showrunner John Wells met last year to talk about who Santos was and how the four-time Emmy-winning series would change gears, delving more into the political process of how a candidate navigates the presidential primaries.

“We spent time with the writers and talked about issues that were important to me and were important story ideas for Latinos, like immigration and education,” he recalls. “If you have a Latino character from a state or district that has a heavy Latino population, those issues would naturally come up.”

Soon enough, Smits and the “Wing” cast and crew were in Toronto, shooting scenes that captured the grassroots nature of a presidential campaign in its earliest stages (Iowa and New Hampshire). Lots of shaking hands, talking to voters in their living rooms and meeting locals at the coffee shop, all the while trying to make a name for yourself on a national stage.

Santos was a virtual unknown — he’ll now face off against Republican nominee Alan Alda for the presidency — unlike Smits, of course. The Brooklyn-born actor was nominated six times and won once as Victor Sifuentes on “L.A. Law,” and was nommed five times for “NYPD Blue.” He also won a Golden Globe for “Blue.”

Smits says one element that ties “Blue” and “Wing” together — two of the finest dramas of the last decade — is the top-quality writing.

“David’s (Milch, ‘Blue’ co-creator) voice is very unique, but in terms of topicalness of issues, he and John are similar,” Smits says. “In whatever David does, he wants to say something.”

And what the breadth of Smits’ characters signifies is that a poor and difficult childhood and personal demons can’t stop someone from being a lawyer, a cop or even, one day, a president.

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