A New York-based stage actor, John Ortiz carved a niche in urban crime dramas, effectively portraying both sides of the law, while making himself into a catalyst of independent theater. A native of Brooklyn, Ortiz at a young age helped to found the Latino Actors Base theatrical co-op, which would in the 1990s morph into the dynamic LAByrinth Theater Company, wherein he began a long association with friend and fellow actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ortiz broke into movies in the 1993 Al Pacino vehicle "Carlito's Way," and would go on to a succession of TV and film jobs largely in supporting ethnic roles, most prominently as a cop in Denis Leary's short-lived New York-set police comedy "The Job" (2001-02) and Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" (2007), as well as feral gangster-types in Michael Mann's film revise of "Miami Vice" (2006) and "Fast & Furious" (2009). His stage work became increasingly prominent in New York through the 2000s, highlighted by multiple outings in plays by Jose Rivera and Stephen Adly Guirgis, a 2004 Broadway debut in Nilo Cruz' Pulitzer-winning play "Anna in the Tropics," and a succession of LAByrinth co-productions with the Public Theater. His on-screen presence grew in the late 2000s as he scored one of the leads in the 2007 sci-fi outing "Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem" (2007) and featured supporting roles in the Jennifer Lopez vehicle "El Cantante" (2006) and the critically acclaimed, Hoffman-directed screen adaptation of the LAByrinth/Public-staged play "Jack Goes Boating" (2010). From blue-collar roots to a rising light of the theater, Ortiz struck a deft balance between Hollywood's multicultural penchant for Latino supporting characters and his building recognition as a signature talent of the Gotham stage.
He was born John Augstin Ortiz into a family of Puerto Rican descent on May 23, 1968, in Brooklyn, NY, and grew up in the borough's impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He later attended the landmark progressive public secondary institution, John Dewey High School. In 1992, the then 24-year-old aspiring actor and 13 other Latino thespians founded the Latino Actors Base, a cooperative ensemble dedicated to staging artist-driven plays. Also that year, he won his first television role - a guest-shot - on NBC's seminal police procedural drama, "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), which would begin a string of work in gritty crime drama both in film and on TV. The next year, he won a small but key role in the Brian De Palma-helmed Al Pacino film, "Carlito's Way" (1993), playing the title character's reckless young cousin who leads them both into a gangland ambush. In 1994, innovative theatrical producer Peter Sellars cast Ortiz and another young New York actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a Southern California-tinged retelling of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," which toured the U.S. and overseas. The two bonded and fellow New Yorker Hoffman would eventually join the increasingly multicultural LAB as it morphed into the LAByrinth Theater Company; the two would soon take up co-duties as the group's artistic directors. Ortiz next won inauspicious roles in a New York-set indie film, "Lotto Land" (1995), a major studio comedy, the ill-fated "Sgt. Bilko" (1995) starring Steve Martin; the Mel Gibson vehicle, "Ransom" (1996), and in 1996, he even landed a sitcom. He played the buddy of two struggling young Angelino women on "Lush Life" (Fox, 1996), a less chirpy, blue-collar answer to NBC's "Friends" (1994-2004), but the show only lasted four episodes before the plug was pulled. After a small part in the Steven Spielberg historical piece "Amistad" (1997), Ortiz's film work would largely see him in supporting Latino roles, as in Showtime's examination of the post-Rodney King verdict mayhem, "Riot" (1997), B-crime films such as "The Last Marshall" (1997) and "The Opportunists" (2000), and prestige indie outings such as Julian Schnabel's biopic of Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas, "Before Night Falls" (2000) and Joe Carnahan's grim cop corruption masterpiece, "Narc" (2002).
Meanwhile, Ortiz's work with LAByrinth gained increasing critical attention. In 2000, Hoffman directed Ortiz in Stephen Adly Guirgis' drama about men jailed at New York's Tombs facility, "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," a production that drew raves and off-Broadway award nominations. The New York Times' review called Ortiz's lead in the play "a ravishing performance shaped by unconditional commitment to character . . . The sweat and tears that cluster on his face do indeed seem to spring directly from inner confusion. There is no barrier between body and soul here, and Mr. Ortiz becomes the play's propulsive motor, pushing it past spots where it might otherwise stall." The next year LAByrinth put up José Rivera's "References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot" at the venerable Public Theater, with Ortiz starring opposite Rosie Perez as an American soldier incapable of dealing with his wife's increasing alienation. Ortiz went on to win the prestigious off-Broadway laurel, the Obie Award, for his performance - just one of a string of major-market productions of Rivera's plays in which he would star. In 2001, Ortiz won a part in the amicable ensemble cast staffing the detective's floor of Denis Leary's irreverent ABC sitcom, "The Job." The show centered on Leary's character as a boozing, philandering antihero, with Ortiz as a smiling but mostly taciturn half of two Latino detectives nicknamed "Rice and Beans." However, the well-reviewed series could not draw big enough audiences for ABC to greenlight a third season. In 2003, Ortiz debuted on Broadway in Nilo Cruz' "Anna in the Tropics," playing an errant husband caught in a swirl of existential melodrama around the Cuban expatriate community in Tampa, FL. The next year, he joined the ensemble cast of the short-lived CBS drama "Clubhouse" (2004-05), playing a big-league baseball player. In 2005, Hoffman and Ortiz went back to the Public, with the former directing Ortiz (as Jesus), fellow LAByrinthian Sam Rockwell (Judas) and Eric Bogosian in Guirgis's anachronistic courtroom drama, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." In 2006, Ortiz signed on to the vanity project of real-life couple Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, "El Cantante," playing the musical partner of Anthony's Hector Levoe, the Puerto Rican pioneer of salsa music.
Ortiz remained Caribbean-adjacent in his next project, playing the ruthless chief henchman of a Miami drug lord in Michael Mann's big screen retreatment of the hit 1980s series, "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89), and also took the part of Che Guevara in the LAByrinth/Public 2006 production of Rivera's "School of the Americas." The next year, LAByrinth staged "Jack Goes Boating" at the Public, a play by Bob Glaudini that starred both Hoffman and Ortiz as a pair of blue collar co-workers; Ortiz, as Clyde, attempting to infuse his socially inept buddy Jack's life with some budgeted fun and romance, eventually setting him up with an equally socially awkward love interest. That same year, Ortiz netted his first major feature lead - albeit in the CGI-starring B-grade sci-fi outing, "Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem" - with the actor playing a local Colorado sheriff beset by alien invaders. He donned the blue again, at least figuratively, in Ridley Scott's epic about Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), "American Gangster." Ortiz played the street-savvy partner of the detective intent on bringing Lucas to heel (Russell Crowe). He remained in the cops-and-thugs trenches in supporting parts in ensuing projects, including on the NBC crime drama "Blue Blood" (2008), in the Edward Norton/Colin Farrell-starring tale of a compromised cop family, "Pride and Glory" (2008), and as a scheming heel at odds with Vin Deisel in the fourth installment of the fast cars/tough drivers action franchise, "Fast & Furious" (2008). In 2009, Hoffman and Ortiz stepped down from their co-artistic director positions at LAByrinth, while prepping another collaboration at the Public. The two would take on the roles of the great nemeses Othello and ensign Iago in the Public's production of the Shakespeare classic, "Othello." In 2010, they put themselves back on more amiable footing, reprising their roles as Jack and Clyde as Hoffman made his feature directorial debut with the film adaptation of "Jack Goes Boating," with LAByrinth player Daphne Ruben-Vega also reprising her role as Clyde's wife and Amy Ryan signing on as Jack's equally awkward love interest. The disarming proletarian comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and in art-house theaters in September 2010, drawing overwhelmingly positive reviews, with The SF Weekly singling out Ortiz as "the film's urgent, beating heart." The actor would earn an Independent Spirit Award nod for his work on the film in late 2010.
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Made his film debut as Al Pacino's young cousin Guajiro in "Carlito's Way"
Landed a small role in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad"
Appeared opposite Javier Bardem in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls"
Was cast as series regular on Denis Leary's "The Job" (ABC)
Made his Broadway debut in Nilo Cruz' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics"
Appeared in Michael Mann's "Miami Vice" as drug lord Jose Yero
Co-starred with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez in "El Cantante"
Played the role of Clyde in "Jack Goes Boating" at the Public Theater
Was cast as in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" as Russell Crowe's partner
Reprised the role of Clyde for the screen adaptation of "Jack Goes Boating," directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman; also executive produced
Nominated for the 2011 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male ("Jack Goes Boating")
Nominated for the 2011 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male
Played a supporting role in David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook"
Appeared in "Fast & Furious 6"
Co-starred with Greg Kinnear on the short-lived comedy series "Rake"
Appeared in the "Steve Jobs" biopic
Played David on "Togetherness"
Appeared in the ensemble cast of the monster feature "Kong: Skull Island"
Gave a supporting turn in the disappointing "The Cloverfield Paradox"