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Stage, not screen, calls Elizondo

(ran GB edition)

He's a staple of Chicago Hope and has appeared in more than 40 movies. Yet Hector Elizondo, a "people person," prefers an immediate connection with an audience.

Never mind the dozens of movies and television programs he has done during the past 40 years. Hector Elizondo considers himself a stage actor.

And just like a role dreamed up in a playwright's mind, Elizondo is an interesting character.

"What I really want to do every day is be a voyeur of sorts, not in a creepy way, but I love to hang around and read, work out and meet plenty of interesting people," he said during a recent interview.

Elizondo comes across as pensive and flippant, formal yet relaxed. He reviews the history of Latinos in America in one breath and explains his disdain for pigeons in the next.

He speaks proudly of his family's Basque and Puerto Rican roots but says his nationality is "New Yorker." Elizondo, one of the stars of Chicago Hope on CBS, chats with a waiter in Spanish as he orders coffee and smiles to passers-by as he sits in a Manhattan hotel lounge.

His desire to interact with people fuels his affinity for the stage.

"So much depends on the audience in a play. The audience is really another character," Elizondo said.

"When you film, you don't sense the audience. There is no reaction. You work and work and nothing comes back to you. Instead you have to wait for your ratings or your box office numbers.

"I don't especially like making movies. I don't think many stage actors do."

But there is an exception to that rule. Elizondo, 62, enjoys working with film director Garry Marshall so much that he has appeared in 11 of Marshall's films. "That must be an official Hollywood record," Elizondo said.

The Marshall-Elizondo collaborations include Pretty Woman, in which Elizondo played the hotel manager, and Runaway Bride. The new film reunites Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in the starring roles.

"We knew eventually we would all work together again. We thought it was going to be a sequel to Pretty Woman, but this is a much better idea. It's another romantic comedy that brings the same people back to a new story."

In Runaway Bride, Elizondo plays Fisher, the husband of Gere's ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson.

While he has appeared in more than 40 movies, Elizondo explained that he is anything but ambitious.

"I guess I like to be busy. Being busy, I realize now, is not the same thing as being ambitious. I think of "ambitious' as making plans, having a vision. I'm still trying to get ambitious."

Question: What is it about Garry Marshall that makes you want to work with him repeatedly?

Elizondo: He knows how to make people feel relaxed and do their best. Working with him, you're not afraid to fail, and that's the important thing. As an actor, you're not afraid to take a chance. He has that kind of confidence in you and in himself.

Question: Have you ever done a movie that you thought would do well but didn't? Or a movie that turned out to be an unexpected success?

Elizondo: I had no idea about Pretty Woman. I thought "This is going to be just okay,' and it turned out to be the biggest success I've been in. The one I thought was going to be successful was something called Being Human, which starred a wonderful fellow, Robin Williams. But Being Human, who has heard of that? At least I got to go to Morocco for it.

Question: Several Chicago Hope cast members are not returning in the fall. What lies ahead for you and the show?

Elizondo: We didn't think we'd have a sixth season. But now we have a new and exciting cast. And as long as there are enough kidneys and spleens to transplant, I'll be there. It's a terrific job. I like familiarity. I like knowing who I work with, who I can count on, and who I have to watch out for.

Question: Have you learned anything about medicine?

Elizondo: You learn something in spite of yourself. Doctors have a hard job. I think bedside manner is more important than almost anything. Hospitals are no place to be sick in. There's lots of bacteria and the food is lousy. It's funny because it's the place where you should be treated the best.

Question: How do you feel about the recent media attention on Latinos?

Elizondo: People have forgotten that we were the first Europeans to walk across America. It's like we're just being discovered now. It's a big deal to be Latin now, but I'd rather not exploit that and make a big deal of it, and I guess I haven't. My driver said to me yesterday, "I didn't know you were Latino.' Hector Elizondo? Did he think my name was Lance Armstrong and I changed it to Hector Elizondo?