Family & Companions
Handsome, charismatic and intense, actor Esai Morales' film debut as a brutal youth offender in "Bad Boys" (1983) was so chillingly convincing that he struggled against being confined to similar roles throughout the remainder of his career. After his near battle to the death against Sean Penn in "Bad Boys," Morales landed what would be his biggest cinematic success with the role of Richie Valens' mercurial older brother in the rock-n-roll box office hit "La Bamba" (1987). He stretched himself as an actor with admirable turns in films such as "Rapa-Nui" (1994), before finding his comfort zone as a member of generational ensemble pieces like the drama "Mi Familia" ("My Family") (1995), co-starring Edward James Olmos and Jimmy Smits. Morales helped break new ground with the Latino-centric series "Resurrection Blvd" (Showtime, 2000-03) and "American Family" (PBS, 2001-04), in addition to gaining wider visibility as a cast member on "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) during the same period. His opportunity to lead a high-profile series failed to take off, however, when the science-fiction soap opera "Caprica" (SyFy, 2009-2010) lasted for less than a season. Despite the challenges of finding work in projects that allowed him to break free of preconceived notions and ethnic stereotypes, Morales continued to work steadily in film and on television in roles both familiar and surprising.
Born Esai Manuel Morales, Jr. on Oct. 1, 1962 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the son of Puerto Rican parents Esai Morales, Sr., a welder, and Iris Margarita, a prominent activist with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Morales lived with his mother after his parents separated while he was quite young, although a heated argument with her in his early teens prompted him to leave home. Soon after, the 14-year-old, who had shown an early interest in acting, found his way to the prestigious New York School for the Performing Arts. While there, he made his stage debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival in a production of "The Tempest" opposite the late Raul Julia. Other work from this early period included a stage production of "El Hermano" at the Ensemble Theater in New York. It was, however, Morales' breakout film debut in the gritty crime drama "Bad Boys" (1983) that brought him to national attention. As Paco Moreno, an unrepentant street thug seeking revenge against a fellow inmate (Sean Penn) in a youth correctional facility, Morales convincingly exuded enough malice that it allowed him to hold his own against the performance of the more seasoned Penn. He played the part so well, in fact, that for the remainder of his career he would struggle against being pigeon-holed in the role of the angry Latino.
Morales continually fought against ethnic stereotyping by playing a variety of them, including the role of a heroic Iranian in the TV miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett's bestseller "On Wings of Eagles" (NBC, 1986). Playing the hot-tempered "bad boy" would nonetheless remain a staple of the young actor's résumé, most memorably with his lauded portrayal of singer Richie Valens' troubled older brother in the hit feature, "La Bamba" (1987). Morales fared less well with the follow-ups "Bloodhounds of Broadway" (1989), a bland ensemble period comedy co-starring Madonna and Matt Dillon, and "Naked Tango" (1991), a romantic drama starring Vincent D'Onofrio. Other roles of the period included an impressive, albeit little seen, performance as a sociopathic kidnapper in the Roger Corman-produced erotic thriller "Ultraviolet" (1992), and a small turn in the silly sci-fi actioner "Freejack" (1992), starring Emilio Estevez and a conspicuously miscast Mick Jagger. In the Kevin Costner-produced "Rapa-Nui" (1994), Morales delivered an admirable performance alongside Jason Scott Lee as a 15th Century Easter Island native embroiled in tribal civil unrest. That same year, he reunited with Raul Julia for the biopic of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes in "The Burning Season" (1994), directed by John Frankenheimer.
Morales earned strong notices for his portrayal of another troubled urban Latino youth in the generational drama "Mi Familia" ("My Family") (1995), co-starring Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos. By the second half of the decade, the actor found himself looking more toward television for rewarding work in such projects as the based-on-fact story of one woman's struggle with bulimia, "Dying to Be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Pena Story" (ABC, 1996). He tried gamely to add depth to an underwritten role in "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca" (1997), a little-seen film that nonetheless earned Morales an ALMA Award nomination for his performance. Returning to TV, he essayed Miguel Gonzalez, the father of real-life Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, the young boy caught in the much publicized battle between his relatives, the government of Cuba, and the U.S. Immigration Department in "A Family in Crisis: The Elian Gonzalez Story" (Fox Family Channel, 2000). Morales' next big break came with his regular role as Paco Corrales in the drama "Resurrection Blvd" (Showtime, 2000-03), the first cable series to center entirely around a Latino family.
That role led to Morales' breakout part on the venerable police drama "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) as Lt. Tony Rodriguez in 2001, replacing James McDaniel as the head of the 15th Precinct's detective squad. Morales next joined the cast of another dramatic series, "American Family" (PBS, 2001-04) in 2002, playing Esteban Gonzalez, a man struggling to raise his son and put his life back together after his release from prison. Morales picked up a cameo in Richard Linklater's odd adaptation of Eric Schlosser's scathing satire of America's conspicuous consumption, "Fast Food Nation" (2006), prior to joining the cast of the short-lived mystery series "Vanished" (FOX, 2006-07). He also landed a recurring role in the post-apocalyptic drama series "Jericho" (CBS, 2006-08), a well-regarded show that, despite its loyal following, was unable to survive the fallout of low ratings. As futuristic family patriarch Joseph Adama in "Caprica" (SyFy, 2009-2010), Morales landed what had the potential to be one of his biggest roles in the much anticipated prequel series spin-off of the cult favorite "Battlestar Galactica" (SyFy, 2004-08). Starring opposite Eric Stoltz, he played the father of future Battlestar commander Bill Adama (played by Edward James Olmos in the 2004 series) in a show that looked more like a primetime soap opera than the space war saga of the previous series. Unfortunately, the project failed to attract its predecessor's fan base or create a new one of its own, which led to its mid-season cancellation.
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Ran away from home at age 15 when his mother objected to his theatrical ambitions; became a voluntary ward of the state (date approximate)
Off-Broadway debut at age 17 in NY Shakespeare Festival production of "The Tempest"
Feature debut, "Bad Boys" opposite Sean Penn
TV acting debut, "The Great Love Experiment", an "ABC Afterschool Special"
First feature starring role, "Rainy Day Friends" (released on video 1988)
TV miniseries debut, "On Wings of Eagles" starring Burt Lancaster
Played the ex-convict/half-brother of 1950s rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens in "La Bamba"
Broadway debut as a young Syrian in love with the titular temptress in "Salome"
TV directorial debut, "America's Most Wanted"
Appeared in "My Family/Mi Familia"
Co-starred in ABC TV-movie "Dying to Be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Pena Story"
Had leading role in "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca"
Played recurring role in the Showtime drama series "Resurrection Blvd."
Joined regular cast of the ABC series "NYPD Blue" as Lt. Tony Rodriguez
Had recurring role on the PBS drama "American Family" as an ex-convict
Cast in the lead role of Cesar Castillo in the Broadway-bound musical staging of "The Mambo Kings"
Cast as part of an ensemble in "Fast Food Nation," Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's non-fiction book
Cast in the short-lived Fox drama, "Vanished" as an FBI agent
Joined the CBS series "Jericho" in a recurring role, as Col. Hoffman, a career military officer and Iraq War veteran