This is one in a series of occasional articles about the careers and lives of character actors in Hollywood.
Bill Smitrovich remembers the day when "everything exploded in my head" and he decided to become an actor.
Smitrovich, 65, had worked at various odd jobs in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., until he decided he wanted a college education. So he saved enough money to go the University of Bridgeport, where he majored in business education and "dabbled in theater."
Acting became his primary focus when a friend recommended he audition for the role of the tragic Lenny in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
"I took the script down the hall to read," Smitrovich said. "I remember like it was yesterday. It was the first time I ever wept at a piece of literature in my life. That was my epiphany."
Since then, Smitrovich has had a busy and varied career as a character actor in film and television with more than 90 roles to his credit — everything from dark Michael Mann crime dramas to last year's raunchy comedy hit "Ted."
Smitrovich is currently starring in the Geffen Playhouse's acclaimed revival of David Mamet's three-character play "American Buffalo," in which he plays Don, the gruff owner of a rundown junk shop who, with the help of volatile poker buddy Teach (Ron Eldard) and his drug-addled young gofer Bobby (Freddy Rodriguez), plans a robbery involving rare coins.
Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the actor's gutsy performance. "The restraint of Smitrovich's utterly realistic portrayal is the key to its expressive power."
"We are a dysfunctional family," Smitrovich said of Don, Teach and Bobby, over a taco dinner at the Geffen Playhouse before a show. "The guys don't know they are funny. Nobody who is funny knows they are funny. But they are also tragic."
Though Smitrovich has appeared on Broadway (Arthur Miller's "The American Clock") and in regional theater (Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Conservatory Theater), "American Buffalo" marks the first time he's been onstage in L.A.
"He's so passionate in everything he does," said "Buffalo" director Randall Arney. "He comes to the role with a real kind of powerful stoicism, a muscularity that is refreshing for the part. I have admired Bill's work, and I went after him. To play a role like Don for an actor is like getting to play a Stradivarius."
Smitrovich also sees "American Buffalo" in musical terms, recalling a book he read by Michael Chekhov called "To the Actor."
"Every chapter starts with a little quote," he said. "The quote in one chapter was, 'All art aspires to music' and that's what this play is to me. It's music. You have got to find the tonality of it. You have got to find what the downbeats are. I feel like it's jazz and sometimes it's the blues."
Smitrovich enjoys his life as a character actor not just because of the diversity of roles — he understudied 22 parts when "American Clock" premiered at the Spoleto Festival in 1979 — but because "I fly under the radar in public, which is nice, frankly."
Breaking out in a wide grin, Smitrovich joked that if he had been a leading man, "at this point in my career I would be getting face-lifts!"
And being a character actor has afforded him the opportunity to work with some of the best directors in film and television, including Bruce Beresford, Wolfgang Petersen and Mann, the last of whom put him in the 1984 pilot of NBC's "Miami Vice" as Sonny Crockett's crooked ex-partner. Mann then cast him in his 1986 feature "Manhunter," which lead to Smitrovich starring with Dennis Farina as hard-nosed Chicago detectives in Mann's stylish 1986-88 NBC series "Crime Story." Mann even cast him as a Latino named Chavez in a 1986 thriller he produced called "Band of the Hand."
"He thought I could do everything," joked Smitrovich.
Though Smitrovich hasn't had a regular series gig since NBC's 2010-11 thriller "The Event," in which he played the vice president, he's kept busy appearing in the 2011 Johnny Depp film "The Rum Diary" and guest starring on several TV series, including "CSI: N.Y.," "Harry's Law" and "Californication."
Smitrovich, a married father of two grown children, says he's lucky because "I get an offer every now and then. I don't have to audition. I have got a track record." Still, he says it's become harder in Hollywood for character actors. The pay scale has come down, and experience doesn't count for as much.
Smitrovich gets emotional when he talks about his work on "Life Goes On," the landmark 1989-93 ABC dramatic series in which he played the father of a teenager (Chris Burke) who has Down syndrome. The series raised the public's awareness and let Smitrovich get involved in the issue.
In addition to hosting a golf tournament for several years, the Life Goes on Celebrity Classic for the Down Syndrome Assn. of Los Angeles, he was on the executive board of the International Special Olympics committee in Connecticut. The year the series ended, Smitrovich received the Michael Landon Humanitarian Award for his work with the Down Syndrome Congress.
Smitrovich is still in contact with Burke, now 47, and his parents.
"It was the most gratifying job I ever had in my life to work with Chris and to be the father of that family," Smitrovich said. "It was a dream."