A Man of Many Roles Well-versed: Actor Ruben Blades is playing a cop again, this time in Baltimore for an NBC pilot. He's also a Grammy-winning singer, a lawyer and a runner-up for Panama's presidency.

March 28, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The dark-haired man has a melodic Latin accent, something you don't often hear in the wooden booths at Werner's restaurant on Redwood Street. More baffling still, he's explaining to a co-worker why he's studying Chinese. Their conversation stops abruptly when a scruffy man approaches the cash register, pulls out a gun and demands all the money.

The dark-haired man jumps to his feet, as does his companion, guns in hand. "Stop," he commands with freeze-in-your-tracks authority. "Baltimore police."

"You a cop?" the would-be robber asks in disbelief, sizing up this guy in khakis, loose jacket and Henley shirt.

Hey, it's Ruben Blades. Of course, he's a cop.

From "The Milagro Beanfield War" to "Predator II," from "Color of Night" to the still-in-production "Devil's Own," Mr. Blades has spent much of his acting career carrying a badge. Now he's in Baltimore, playing a cop again, for the NBC pilot, "Falls Road."

"Six out of 20 roles," he says, after a quick mental review of his filmography. "That's still pretty high." He's also been a boxer, janitor and recovering alcoholic, but never a drug dealer.

He can afford to just say no to drug-dealer parts, because acting is only one of Mr. Blades' many pursuits.

You a singer? the guy with the gun might have gasped. Yes, an international salsa star, a composer with two Grammys who attracts up to 40,000 fans in Latin America venues.

You a lawyer? He has a law degree from the University of Panama and a master's in international law from Harvard.

You a politician? He ran for president of Panama in 1994. Official results say he was third in a field of seven, but he thinks he was really second. Today, the party he started, Papa Egoro, can claim seven representatives in the government.

And, while Mr. Blades is not studying Chinese, he is working on his French.

"I hate the question 'What do you do?'" the soft-spoken $l 47-year-old says. "Because it requires you to talk so much about yourself."

In this salsa-challenged city, the idea of a television show built around a Latino character may seem, well, loco.

Then there's the matter of the title, "Falls Road." The north-south route that stretches from the Jones Falls to the state line is too diverse to be particularly evocative. "Belair Road," now there's a name, as long as it's pronounced correctly, which is to say incorrectly. Or how about "The Avenue," which could be Pennsylvania, Eastern or 36th Street?

"We saw Falls Road as the connector, because these characters work in the city and live in the county," explains producer Trish Soodik. When agreement from her listener is not immediately forth- coming, she laughs. "Well, it's better than 'JFX.' "

The idea -- a family drama centering on a couple with two jobs, two children and all the inherent complications -- was hers. One understands the source of her inspiration when Ms. Soodik glances at her watch, calculating the whereabouts of her 8-year-old son: If it's 2: 30, he must be heading to his after-care program.

The script was written by her husband, Henry Bromell, an executive producer for "Homicide" who also has written for "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away." With "Homicide" done for the year, he's spending part of his time off as executive producer on "Falls Road." Twentieth Century Fox acted as matchmaker, fixing up Mr. Bromell and Mr. Blades to see if the two wanted to work together. They did, and the result is the pilot, which finished filming this week. The cop -- actually a detective with the Violent Crimes Task Force -- is now Luis Juega, an invented surname and a nifty pun: "He plays." Mr. Blades likes "Juega" because it doesn't evoke any single country or culture. And he likes the Baltimore setting, which renders the character's ethnicity so anomalous it becomes secondary.

"I thought that was very intriguing," Mr. Blades says. "I would be more of a person."

He is sitting in an empty banquet room at the Harbor Court Hotel, his home-away-from-home away from home-away-from-home. Just as no one job can claim Mr. Blades, neither can a single city. He lived in New York for years after arriving in the United Statesand has been spending time there recently for his next film and album. He has two homes in California and a place in Panama.

If "Falls Road" is picked up by NBC, he'll be living here, too, which is fine with him. Before anyone can suggest Baltimore might seem less wordly than his other homes, he launches into an impassioned defense.

"I've lived a lot of places, and it's totally arrogant to expect a place to be like other places," he says. "I'm working in this town. It's got the prettiest baseball stadium I've ever seen. And it's near places I want to visit, like Gettysburg."

No easy answers

Ask a seemingly simple question of Mr. Blades, get a detailed answer. As Norman Mailer said at the trial of the Chicago 7: Facts mean nothing without nuance.

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