A self-styled renaissance man who has made a significant contribution to salsa with his socially conscious lyrics, Panamanian-born Ruben Blades has also enjoyed a successful career as a screen actor and, in his native country, founded the political party Papa Egora, running and placing third in the 1994 presidential election. After obtaining a law degree in Panama, he moved to the USA in 1974, staying temporarily with his exiled parents in Miami before moving to NYC where he was soon working with salseros Ray Barretto and Larry Harlow. A collaboration with trombonist and band leader Willie Colon followed, and their 1978 album "Siembra" became the best-selling salsa record in history. He branched into movies with the mediocre melodrama "The Last Fight" (1983), writing the title song as well as portraying a singer-turned-boxer vying for a championship. He also penned his first musical score for a film that year for "When Mountains Tremble".
Blades gained widespread recognition in 1985 as co-writer and star of the independent "Crossover Dreams" (1985), exhibiting real screen presence as a New York salsa singer willing to do anything to break into the mainstream. He was also the subject of Robert Mugge's fascinating music documentary "The Return of Ruben Blades", which debuted at that year's Denver Film Festival. After finding himself in two 1987 stinkers, "Critical Condition" (with Richard Pryor) and "Fatal Beauty" (with Whoopi Goldberg), Blades rebounded nicely with Robert Redford's "The Milagro Beanfield War" (1988), playing the modern-day New Mexico sheriff of the charming, fanciful fable. He wrote the song "Tu y Yo" for Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and reteamed with Lee the following year as the hard-nosed bookie of "Mo' Better Blues". The banner year also saw him act in the "Chinatown" sequel "The Two Jakes" (directed by and starring Jack Nicholson), "The Lemmon Sisters" (starring Diane Keaton) and "Predator 2" (with Danny Glover and Gary Busey), in addition to scoring Sidney Lumet's "Q & A".
On the small screen, Blades has delivered impressive performances in a number of cable movies beginning with his turn as a Death Row inmate in HBO's "Dead Man Out", his first collaboration with Glover. Though "One Man's War" (HBO, 1991) gave him the opportunity to act with the venerable Anthony Hopkins, the well-intentioned script about repression in Paraguay failed to rise to the level of more compelling, similarly-themed films. He fared better as Pepita Abatino, the Sicilian born gigolo who groomed Joseph Baker for stardom, in that year's "The Josephine Baker Story" (HBO), garnering an Emmy nomination for his efforts, and earned praise (and a second Emmy nod) as a Mexican janitor who romances Christine Lahti in "Crazy From the Heart" (TNT, 1991). He also starred as Pastor Beruman whose wife is on the freeway with their two young children in "Miracle on I-880" (NBC, 1993), a routine dramatization of the 1989 Oakland earthquake.
"The Super" (1991) cast Blades opposite Joe Pesci as a crafty street hustler who gradually gets the slum landlord more attuned to the needs of his struggling tenants, and the erotic thriller "Color of Night" (1994), starring Bruce Willis, offered him as an abrasively funny police detective. Ever mindful of his onscreen image, he has stated that he tries to avoid stereotypical roles and looks for films that balance the Latino-as-bad-guy with a positive portrayal. He found such a role as Harrison Ford's partner in the muddled thriller "The Devil's Own" (1997), one of his first films after his unsuccessful 1994 bid to become Panama's president. His worldwide recognition as a champion of the Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement of salsa that brought substance to what was formerly viewed as simply dance music was not enough to sway the voters of his homeland, many unable to regard him as a serious candidate because his career required so much time outside the country.
In 1997, Blades headed the cast of composer Paul Simon's first Broadway musical, "The Capeman", based on a true story about a murderous youth who becomes a poet in prison. In interviews, he has stated that he believes his biggest mistake was releasing an English-language album in 1988, just because everyone thought he should in the wake of his 1987 Grammy win for "Escenas"--a trap he sees younger singers like his "Capeman" co-star Marc Anthony falling into. Staying true to his musical vision and defying convention in nearly every way, he earned his fourth Grammy for "Tiempos" (1999), his first album with the 12-piece Costa Rican band Editus and one in marked contrast to the commercial trend of Latin music. For someone who has played his share of policemen, Blades relished his role as Mexican artist Diego Rivera in Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" (also 1999), which pitted his character's communist sensibilities against those of John Cusack's Nelson Rockefeller. He then made his first foray to regular series work with "Gideon's Crossing" (ABC, 2000-01), playing a medical colleague of star Andre Braugher in this new offering from writer-executive producer Paul Attanasio, and also appeared as a rancher in the long-awaited film version of "All the Pretty Horses" (2000), adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy.