Edward James Olmos: “Ethics in Hollywood,” Launer Auditorium, Columbia College, March 10

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Edward James Olmos will deliver the 2009 Schiffman Ethics in Society Lecture, “Ethics in Hollywood,” at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 10 in Launer Auditorium on the Columbia College campus. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the lecture is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, however, so get there early to ensure a seat.

A media briefing and question-and-answer session for students, faculty and staff precedes the lecture at 4:30 p.m. in Dorsey Gym, also on the Columbia College campus.

Out of the barrio

Born in poor, drug- and gang-infested East Los Angeles, Olmos didn’t begin his career as an actor but as a baseball player and then as a rock musician. Olmos says he played baseball specifically to avoid street gangs and drugs, and was so good at it he became Golden State batting champion. He later became lead singer in a band he named Pacific Ocean (because it was “the biggest thing on the West Coast”) and released a record in 1968. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s he played the most famous clubs on Sunset Strip; a friend suggested that, with his flair for the dramatic, he consider a career in acting. Around this time he was attending college at East Los Angeles College and California State University and began the study of acting that took him out of the barrio.

Olmos then acted in such diverse fare as Zoot Suit, about the 1943 Latino riots in Los Angeles, and Miami Vice, in which he played Lt. Castillo and received an Oscar nomination. He's also won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his 1988 portrayal of Jaime Escalante, the eccentric but dedicated math teacher in Stand and Deliver, which he also produced.

In 1996, he won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination for his work in HBO’s The Burning Season, the story of Brazilian political activist Chico Mendes, who died fighting for the Amazon rainforest. He’s also directed several made-for-TV films and episodes of his most recent gig, Commander William Adama in the sci-fi spectacular Battlestar Galactica.

Giving back

Olmos launched a nationwide multimedia project called Americanos: Latino Life in the United States in 1999. This is a celebration of Latino culture through photography, film, music and the printed word to help instill pride in Latinos and build bridges between that community and others. Americanos included a five-year traveling photography exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution; a music CD featuring Latino artists; a documentary that aired on HBO; and a book co-edited by Olmos of essays, photos and commentary by Hispanic leaders.

Olmos also is a US Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a national spokesperson for organizations such as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and is executive director of the Lives In Hazard Education Project, a national gang-prevention program funded by the United Stated Department of Justice. He makes an average of 150 personal appearances a year in places where he can best reach kids at risk: juvenile halls, detention centers, boys and girls clubs, high schools - and, of course, Columbia College. Actor? Producer? Director? Activist? Author? Humanitarian? Lecturer?

Yes.

Perhaps one reason Olmos so consistently gives back is that he has never forgotten his roots. He has written that he could easily have gone down the path of gangs, drugs and guns; fate, and his talent, decreed otherwise.

And Olmos says he would much rather be known as an activist than an actor. He played a central role in organizing a relief fund for the victims of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, and has been praised for keeping his cool when his city erupted in riots in 1992, then led a community effort to clean up the devastation. Always, he teaches the futility of violence and rage.

“Violence is bred,” he has said. “It doesn’t come out of us naturally. Nobody comes out of the womb violent and hating. It’s a learned behavior.”

Olmos has not been afraid in his choice of roles, either. In American Me, Olmos starred as the street gang ruler of a drug-and-murder empire in Folsom Prison. He also played Abraham Quintanilla, the strong, supportive father of singing star Selena in Selena. Olmos physically transformed himself for the role, gaining 60 pounds. Fans of Battlestar may be interested to learn that the unusually strong character of William Adama was written specifically for Olmos.

Ethics where?

But why ethics in Hollywood, two words rarely seen in the same proximity?

“This year, we asked about the moral responsibility that a filmmaker has to society,” said Anthony Alioto, professor and Schiffman Endowed Chair in ethics, philosophy and religious studies at Columbia College. “Given the profound influence of movies in our society, including such things as values, we looked for a speaker who not only acted but also directed and produced, and was a community activist outside the profession.”

The Schiffman Lecture Series was established in 2000 through a gift by John A. Schiffman in honor of his late wife, Althea, a 1941 graduate of Christian College who served on the Columbia College Board of Trustees from 1983 to 1987. An endowed chair in ethics, religious studies and philosophy was also established; Dr. Anthony Alioto, professor of history, has filled the position since 2002. Following his wife's death, Schiffman served on the Columbia College Board of Trustees, retiring from the board 20 years later in 2007.

“It is my hope that through the endowed chair and lecture series, Columbia College will become a force in carrying forward the message to students that integrity, honesty, fairness and compassion are just as important as intellect,” Schiffman said. This, too, is Olmos’ message.

Past Schiffman ethics lecturers include Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas; David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian; Soledad O’Brien, television journalist and CNN co-anchor; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental ethics advocate; and Arun Gandhi, founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence and grandson of the late Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi.

Visit the Schiffman Lecture Series site for more information.

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