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Edward James Olmos with math teacher Jaime Escalante on the set of "Stand and Deliver" (1988). The film is based on a true-story of Mr. Escalante's life.

Celebrating Teachers with Edward James Olmos

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This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, although we would be remiss if we didn’t think every week should be dedicated to honoring and respecting our teachers.

Today, we share a very special conversation with Edward James Olmos about the film “Stand and Deliver” (1988). The film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2011.

Based on a true story, “Stand and Deliver” stars Olmos in an Oscar-nominated performance as crusading math teacher Jaime Escalante, who inspired his underprivileged East Los Angeles students to undertake an intensive program in math and calculus, achieve high test scores, and improve their sense of self-worth. When the students are later accused of cheating, it takes the passion and fight of their teacher to get them prepared to retake the test, rebuild their self-esteem, and prove themselves to their families, their school, the community, and the world.

Co-produced by Olmos and directed by Ramón Menéndez, “Stand and Deliver” became one of the most popular narrative feature films produced in the 1980s by Latino filmmakers. The film celebrates the values of self-betterment through hard work, the power of knowledge, and the impact that one teacher can make.

The influence of educators can sometimes be hard to measure. Maybe it was a big “a-ha” moment that changed your path. Maybe it was daily affirmations and kindness that empowered and inspired you. Or was it a tough teacher who held nothing back and pushed you to levels that you didn’t know you were capable of?  Think back to that teacher who impacted you, or better yet, reach out to let them know that you appreciate them.

 

“Stand and Deliver”
with Edward James Olmos
Interview by Stacie Seifrit-Griffin

 

“Stand and Deliver” (1988) was added to the National Film Registry in 2011.

 

You must be so proud of your career!

I’m very grateful. It’s such a privilege to be in this industry. To live your life in the arts and be able to support your family and yourself, and to use it in the manner that allows you to not only entertain, but to really inform and help people understand themselves better. That really is the key.

 I would say “Stand and Deliver” certainly does that. It’s such an important and beautiful piece of work, and so much because of your performance, and the vision and dedication of Mr. Escalante.

I was fortunate, and I was also prepared for the opportunity. My definition of luck is right there – prepared for opportunity. I had many years of experience using the craft and then finally something of this caliber came in.

Everybody was overwhelmed and couldn’t believe that these inner-city school kids could qualify and comprehend advanced calculus. It’s such a difficult examination.

It’s been stated that, I think, 3% of the students who are eligible to take the Advanced Placement test in the United States take it, and only 3% of that 3% pass with a 3, 4, or 5. Five being the highest grade and three is a very strong grade that gives you a passing grade. These scores give you college credit. These students are taking college level classes, and they are not only understanding them, but they are high ranking.

In this case, this was a minor miracle, because Advanced Placement calculus had never been taught at that school. In the late 70s and early 80s, teacher Jaime Escalante found a core group of students that wanted to learn math, and who were able to sustain the discipline it would take.

He guided them for two years, and by the end of those two years, they knew their math and calculus. He had to get them through remedial math, then Algebra I, then Geometry, then Algebra II, then Trig, then Math Analysis, and finally Calculus. It’s a lot of math, man. A lot of math.

And factor in their life circumstances.

That’s what made the movie so wonderful. Not only were you with them taking the examination, which was enough because you saw what they had to prepare for, but then you went home with them. You saw where they come from, and the level of difficulties they had just existing.

The movie really brings you into their world.

It was a beautifully constructed piece of work by Tom Musca, Ramón Menéndez and me, but the key to the whole thing was Jaime Escalante. He created this event.

We produced the movie and bought the rights to Jaime’s life for one dollar. This was just after they called the students cheaters and they had to retake the test. That was an ugly moment in time because they questioned the integrity of not only the teacher but the students.

When that happened, and as you see in the film, the students must retake the exam, and within 24 hours. Now that happened in, I think, July. So, they’ve been out of the classroom since May and all of June. At the end of June is when Educational Testing Services of Princeton came and told the students that their scores were not going to be eligible and that they [ETS] were going to notify all the universities and colleges that their grades had been denied.

That destroyed everybody. They got a lot of press when they first passed the test, but they got even more press when everyone thought that they had cheated. That was terrible. It was so hurtful. I don’t even know where to begin. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about what these kids went through. It was so unfair.

As you see in the movie, the reason it was questioned as to whether they really did the work or cheated was the fact that they didn’t miss enough multiple-choice questions, and that all the students answered the same question wrong and in the same way.

Right, because the same teacher taught them. The students were guilty until proven innocent. It makes me so angry, but it also makes me love and respect teachers so much more.

Me, too. I have so much respect for teachers.

Tell me about Mr. Escalante and the time that you spent with him.

He was an extraordinary human being.  He was a genius, who really knew physics, and he had an ability to give people the security and the trust in him to get them to the point of understanding this language.

And it’s like if you’re going to study French, German, Slavic, Japanese or Chinese, it’s going to take time. You’re not going to get through this quickly, and it’s going take a lot of hard work to learn the language. Or, like learning to play an instrument. There is no shortcut. You have to learn the basics.

He had an uncanny ability to teach and make you understand. The way that he would show his love for you and entrust you with a great sense of self-worth. He instilled self-worth, self-respect, and self-esteem which is a key ingredient to allowing people to become all that they can be and have a good feeling about themselves.

And if you’ve seen the movie, there are times his kids say, “I can’t do this,” “I was always the dumbest one,” “Calculus is not for me,” and he says, “Oh, poor you.”  He makes a joke, and then everybody starts laughing, and even the person who wanted to leave starts realizing that he can make it. And, in fact, all the kids made it.

Jaime had a great gift of communication, a great gift of understanding human nature, and an unbelievable love for inner-city school kids, minorities and people who really didn’t get the chance that they should be getting.  He called himself the great equalizer because mathematics is a great equalizer. You learn math, you can go anywhere in the world and talk to anybody.

How did he feel about the movie?         

About six days before we started shooting, we had gone through a lot with the two writers. Tom Musca and Ramón Menéndez co-wrote it, and then Musca and I produced it, and Ramón directed it. There came a point where I’d been with Jaime for so long that I really felt his spirit. Imitation is the greatest form of honoring somebody, imitating and really grabbing a hold that’s what I did.

His feeling about the movie was that he was very proud of what we had done. Before we started shooting, he and I went through the script, word by word, and he had a lot of things that he added to the script in his own way.

What’s an example of something he felt was important to be in the script?

His main thing was to make sure that we included the cutting of the apples, the dressing up in the McDonald’s hat, and the “finger man.” These reflected the way he taught.

He told me the story about coming back from his heart attack. He was out for three days and went right back to the school.  He didn’t go home when he left the hospital.  He went back to the classroom and relieved the substitute teacher. I asked, “Why did you come back so quickly?” He said, “Because I had too many kids who really needed me. So, I walked in, and I told the substitute teacher, ‘Thank you for taking care of my congueros, [kangaroos] and have a nice day.’”

I was writing down all these little anecdotes, so I would reflect the way that he did it. That was his speech. That was him talking, it wasn’t a gifted writer.

The key to the whole thing was capturing lightning in a bottle and it’s almost impossible to do but I think that’s what we did. And not only did he deserve it, but we as people on this planet deserved it.

Edward James Olmos plays educator Jaime Escalante. Mr. Escalante called himself “the great equalizer” because when you learn math, you can go anywhere in the world and talk to anybody.

 

It must have been hard because you want to honor him, but you don’t want to be a caricature of him.

Yes! He saw everything that I shot. He was behind the camera watching. And when I got done, he’d have his arms crossed with his little hat on, looking at me, and then he’d lifted one thumb from where his arms were crossed and gave me a thumbs-up sign, and said “Keep on going.”

Those “thumbs up” probably meant everything. 

Well, I couldn’t have done it without his support. When he told me how he almost died, how he had his heart attack, then had to watch me do that scene, he wept.

He’s in the night school classroom teaching English to adults and says, “I’ll be right back,” then they repeat it in Spanish, “Ahorita regreso,” as he walked out of the room. He got to the stairs, and said, “My legs started to give out and my chest hurt, so my hand was up around my heart and the other hand was trying to hold on to the rail, and my feet were giving out, so my body was going forward. I slipped and I slid down the stairs and hit my head at the very bottom of the stairs.”

This scene became very personal…

Yeah. Really personal. I told the guys that we need a crane with a rig arm jib that sticks out. It can follow me down the stairs and then get in front of me down low following me all the way down as I’m going face first on the steps, and then I hit my head. You see me hit my head at the very bottom. I said, “We better get this, because I’m only gonna do it once.”  I got to the bottom, and I hit my head, and they got it on camera. One take. I was very thankful.

 What a wonderful cameraman, too.

Yeah, he was great, and he was also a great cinematographer. The editing also made the movie. Editing was the key to the whole thing.

I had to really understand that we’re making a million-dollar movie, and that wasn’t a lot of money then and it’s not a lot of money now. We had to get the money together from different sources. The largest amount came from American Playhouse, which is part of PBS-Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and they gave us $450,000 as seed money.

We needed to raise about $1.2 million. That’s what it finally came out to be with all the editing and everything, but the actual production cost is a little over a million. So, we had to raise the rest of the money, and we did. Five thousand from here, 10,000 from there, 300,000 here, 200,000 there. It took a couple of years, so we didn’t start shooting until 1987.

I also like that you focused on his personal life. Every teacher that I know brings their work home with them. 

Being with him, watching him and watching the way he treated his own family, the way he treated the kids in classrooms, they were his kids. In the beginning, he committed himself to do nothing more than make sure that students who really wanted to be there got the full benefit. He made them sign a contract and, if you didn’t agree with the contract, you had to get out of the room, and if you signed this contract and you’re not living up to it, you’re going to have to leave. He committed himself to the contract, too.

It’s life-changing on so many levels, and not just once. He did this year after year after year. 

That’s why people go crazy at the end of the movie. In 1982, there were 18 students that passed. In 1983, there were 31 students that passed. In 1984, it was 63, in 1985 it was 77, and in ‘86, there were 78 or 79, and then in 1987, 87 students passed and that was the year that the movie came out. He wasn’t messing around. In his final year of teaching, he was teaching in Sacramento at the time, he would teach in classrooms with 300 seats, because so many kids wanted to take the class with him. He was amazing. In his final year of teaching before he retired, he had, I think, 250 kids passing the examination in one year. That’s a lot.

In 2011, and sadly after Mr. Escalante passed, the Library of Congress selected “Stand and Deliver” to be included in the National Film Registry for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.” How does that make you feel? 

It’s an honor. I’ve been very fortunate to be in this industry and for the accolades that I’ve received.  I’ve had acting awards, directing awards, and producing awards but then, to be given the ultimate, which is to be put into the Library of Congress National Film Registry, that’s what it’s all about.

Maybe thousands of years from now, people will look at these archives and at this Registry and they will see why these films were so unbelievable and important. They will meet Jaime, who like many teachers, gave of themselves, and changed the course of human life in a big way.

 

 

The views expressed are those of Mr. Olmos and may not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Congress. To read more from Mr. Olmos about his other films on the National Film Registry visit www.loc.gov/film. 

 

Comments

  1. GOD BLESS TEACHERS! GOD BLESS MY MOM A TEACHER FOR 40+ YEARS.

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