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Jimmy Smits dug up an old ‘NYPD Blue’ singing scene to help nab his ‘In the Heights’ role

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Jimmy Smits was thrilled to sing and dance for the "In the Heights" musical. "I get to knock that off my artistic bucket list."
Jimmy Smits was thrilled to sing and dance for the "In the Heights" musical. "I get to knock that off my artistic bucket list."

There's so much to cheer about during the joyous film adaptation of "In the Heights" – a landmark predominantly Latino cast telling a Latino story with stunning song and dance sequences.

And then there's the prospect of Jimmy Smits singing and dancing.

Smits, 65, says he put in the work for his crucial role and six total song lines (he counted) to make sure his performance would live up to the gold standard set by the cast of "In the Heights" (now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max).

"Even for six lines of musical interlude dialogue, there were four vocal coaches on two different coasts," says Smits, speaking over Zoom. "If you haven't done something since summer stock theater or high school productions, you want to be on point. Especially when you got all those powerhouse voices happening."

It doesn't take long before the Brooklyn-born trailblazing actor of Puerto Rican descent busts out into song with a "Good morning!" in the musical's opening Washington Heights bodega scene.

You're gonna wanna cheer because it's Smits – dramatic blueblood star of mega TV series like "NYPD Blue," "LA Law," "The West Wing," even "Sons of Anarchy" – acting in previously unseen ways.

Star Anthony Ramos was elated when he heard Smits croon for the first time from the other side of the bodega counter.

Jimmy Smits sings during the opening of "In The Heights."
Jimmy Smits sings during the opening of "In The Heights."

"It was like, 'Come on! Hit us with them notes, brother!" Ramos says, adding he was equally impressed by Smits dancing later. "And then he was busting it in the 'Carnival' scene. Yes, sir!"

Smits has long been a super-fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning play, relating to it immediately during its 2007 off-Broadway run and catching multiple productions after it opened on Broadway in 2008. He even lent his unmistakable voice for the play's promotional TV commercials.

But as he followed the project's 13-yearlong transition to the screen, Smits saw the need for serious dramatic chops as Kevin Rosario, the immigrant father selling his car service to put his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) through college. "It was like, I actually can bring something to the party," he says.

Jimmy Smits dances with his screen daughter Leslie Grace during a living room party for "In the Heights."
Jimmy Smits dances with his screen daughter Leslie Grace during a living room party for "In the Heights."

When "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu was brought on to direct the big-screen adaptation of "In the Heights," he recalls Smits making a compelling pitch. He'd bring the nuance to Rosario, who stubbornly refuses to accept Nina's decision to not attend Stanford University – the same nuance, the director says, Michelle Yeoh brought to the mother-in-law role of "Crazy Rich Asians."

"He sat me down and said, 'Jon, I'm going to be your Michelle Yeoh in this. I'm not going to be the enemy. I'm going to fill this role with love,' " Chu recalls. "And that's exactly what this part is. This could have been done in so many villainous, flat ways. But he gave it so much love that you almost root for Kevin."

Smits innately understood Kevin's plight, as the first in his education-prioritizing extended immigrant family to attend Ivy League graduate school at Cornell University, where he received a Masters of Fine Arts. He is also a father of two grown children.

"I know how I feel about wanting my children to do better, and maybe putting undue pressure on them sometimes," says Smits. "I knew what this family was grappling with."

Still, to earn the role, Smits, who sang in a teen doo-wop group and has duetted with "Sesame Street" Muppet Elmo, scoured through his storied TV franchise history for song moments to demonstrate. Even the gritty police drama "NYPD Blue."

"We were scrambling putting together little video clips of me singing 'Duke of Earl' with Dennis Franz in the squad car or a little song flourish in 'West Wing,' " says Smits. "It wasn't heavy lifting on the musical thing. But I still had to kind of convince them that I could do it."

He leaned into pro vocal and dance help for the role and took rehearsal advice from his salsa-dancing partner of 35 years, Wanda De Jesus. "She really ran me through the paces."

Ramos says Smits is a perfect representative for a film that is showcasing a new generation of Latino performers

"He's a thespian and a pioneer," says Ramos. "There were even less Latino actors back when Jimmy started. He had it way harder and was able to make this amazing career.'

Smits backed up his reputation bringing fire to a dramatic family dinner scene where his disagreements with Nina blow up. When the two emotionally reconcile, a tearful Smits ad-libbed a loving kiss to Nina's forehead that producer Scott Sanders says was not in the script. "It came so organically from Jimmy," says Sanders.

Later, in the festive "Carnival" dance sequence, Smits worked to stand out among top-tier dancers.

"That's the one where he was really working hard. He was like, 'I'm not going to look like an idiot, Jon.' He really wanted to get it right," says Chu, who pumped the music on set and subtly put the camera on Smits. "I'm not sure he knew we were shooting. But he really brought the swagger."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'In the Heights' had Jimmy Smits reaching for 'NYPD Blue' song scenes