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One On 1: Actor/Comedian John Leguizamo

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of New York's most creative actors and comedians, John Leguizamo.

You know John Leguizamo, actor. You know John Leguizamo, comedian, and his one-man shows. But do you know John Leguizamo, one-time Tompkins Square Park handball player?

“You've got to get that spring callous that you’ve gotta’ get every year,” he says. “I have [gone handball soft]. The callous is gone. Your hand's got to crack in the middle. Listen, I'll play you, I'll play you. I'll kick your ass, but that doesn't say much."

Damned the luck we didn't have a Spaldeen with us, because the man was a serious player when he lived in the neighborhood in the 1980's and '90s, even playing the game on some double dates.

“[The girls] loved it, are you kidding?” he says. “They got to play with us, we treated them as superstars, we let them win, let them beat us, and they thought they were better than us. They loved it - it was a turn on.”

Here I was all these years growing up trying to play guitar and sing songs.

“You worked too hard,” says Leguizamo. “You were trying too hard and the girls sense that.”

But there’s no time for handball these days. Leguizamo is starring in the new movie "Land of the Dead," and he's starring in his first Spanish language film, "Cronicas."

There was one problem during the shooting. Leguizamo, born in Colombia, raised in Queens, needed tutoring in Spanish.

"I'm supposed to be a journalist in the movie, very intellectual, very collegiate, great vocabulary, a lot of literary references, [and] I couldn't do anything,” he says. “My Spanish is third grade, so when I would be speaking Spanish, a lot of it was improvising, and I'd be like, 'Me want talk you, me need.’ The director's like, 'Cut!’”

We first got to know John Leguizamo in his one-man shows “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-O-Rama” in the early '90s. “Freak” and “Sexaholix” followed a few years later.

Leguizamo heard all different types of accents growing up in Jackson Heights, so when he's on stage, just about everyone and everything is fair game. There's the bit about hitting on an Irish girl on St. Patrick's Day where he says, “I had too many green beers, and I had to have her, so I Riverdanced up to her.”

“My growing up wasn't so Latin-centric,” he says. “We had a mix, and I wanted to skewer all those people and make fun of them because they made fun of me back when. That's how you grow up in New York, making fun of each other."

What's striking about Leguizamo's performance, especially when he's discussing his family, is that what's personal is public, and what's public is very personal, like when he says in one of his shows, “My mother used to always say, 'Ay m'ijo, I wanted to get an abortion, but it was too late - you were already in college.’”

“I'm writing and crafting something extremely personal from my own artistic goals, but I forget that it is my personal life that I'm putting out there for people to view,” he says. “All of a sudden people know so much about me that I didn't really want people to know about me, but I was just doing my work and my work was taking me to a place of sort of self-exposure, in a way."

Leguizamo’s parents divorced when he was young.

“My mom was like 18, dad was 20 or something like that, so they were really young when they were raising me, so they felt like I was taking their lives,” he says.

Years later, he was estranged from his father and doing "Freak" on Broadway, a show Leguizamo called a love letter to his father. "Freak" included a lunch scene with his father, and as Leguizamo puts it, his father's Jewish mistress.

In the scene, John and his brother had to make believe that they were Jewish. His father showed up backstage one night unannounced, and he was not amused.

"I go, 'Dad,’ and he goes, 'How dare you! How dare you!’” he says. “He ran out and I chased him down the alley, and then we talked in his car. I purged myself, which I hadn't done all my life, and I let out a lot of things. And we got close for a while, really close. It was intense.”

John Leguizamo's film schedule may have him traveling more often than not these days, but he lives here.

“People are always going to be in your face, telling you about your work, whether they like it,” he says. “New Yorkers come up to me and they go, 'I love your work man, but that movie sucked.’ And you go, 'Yeah, your honesty is refreshing. Thank you.’”

Leguizamo moved to New York from Colombia at age four, and he went to school in Queens. He was arrested for jumping a turnstile, for truancy while trying to enter an X-rated movie in Times Square, and for seizing control of the public address one time on a subway car.

“We were on the No. 7 train and we knocked down the conductor's booth, we grabbed the mic and we started jamming on it,” he says. “I guess if we were funnier we wouldn't have been arrested so quickly. They would have waited."

Leguizamo says he survived because of advice from mentors.

"I was failing school, they were about to expel me an all that, and my math teacher Mr. Zufa said, 'You're very disruptive, but you're very funny. Why don't you become a comedian or something?’” he says. “And in my own punk way I said, 'Aw, shut up, mind your business.’ But I went home and looked in the yellow pages and found an acting school. And I started because of him and my step mom. My stepmom was always like, 'You're funny - do something with yourself.’”

He enrolled in Sylvia Leigh's Showcase Theater. Later he studied with the man who was the master teacher at the Actor's Studio, Lee Strasberg, for one day.

“And Strasberg comes over, and he had a windpipe thing because he was like 72 or something, and he said, 'You could do much better than that. Try harder,’” he says. “And he walked away and that's all he left me with, and he died that night. Maybe because of my acting, maybe not, who knows?”

Leguizamo attended NYU and lived a few blocks east of Tompkins Square Park for most of the '80s and '90s.

“It was great, really edgy,” he says. “Artists lived here, and it was a really volatile community. I fed off the vibe, definitely. Every time you walked out of your apartment there was somebody fighting or making love."

Soon Leguizamo started to get noticed by theater people, among them the great playwright Arthur Miller.

“I met him. He came to see my play 'Mambo Mouth,’” he says. “Dude, that was amazing. I was like, 'I didn't know you were so damned tall.’ He’s like a center - he's huge. But he was at my play. I can't believe it. I was like, 'Didn't you have better things to do with your time than to come see my stuff? Shouldn't you be writing another masterpiece?’”

Leguizamo made it from shows downtown, days he describes as "fold-up seats with fliers on loose leaf paper" to packed houses on Broadway.

“To make it in anything there's got to be some level of obsession, and with obsession comes sacrifice," he says. “I sacrificed a lot of friendships and lot of time with family, but I'm not going to do that anymore.”

In fact, Leguizamo says he now often takes his wife and two young children on the road with him.

And yes, there are thoughts of yet another one-man show.

“I want to try and be an artist. I'm aspiring to that," he says. "You want to make people think, you want to make them walk out either angry or make them want to do something, change something in their lives, change other people’s lives, you hope. That's what you want to do is great work."

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