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Freddy Rodriguez works "The Night Shift" for NBC

By COURTNEY CROWDER Chicago Tribune

Publication: The Day

Published July 05. 2014 4:00AM

On the whole, actor Freddy Rodriguez doesn't have much in common with basketball star LeBron James.

But Rodriguez points to one important similarity: At a young age, he, too, faced the potentially life-changing decision of whether to "go pro."

In 1994, just a year after graduating from Lincoln Park High School, Rodriguez found himself with three options. He could enroll at Columbia College Chicago (his parents' preferred choice), he could finish the audition process for the Goodman Theatre's production of "The Merchant of Venice" or he could take a role in the Keanu Reeves-helmed period film, "A Walk in the Clouds."

He chose to do the film.

"LeBron went straight out of high school into the professional basketball world, and that was the choice I had to make, whether I was going to go pro or go to school," Rodriguez said. "I guess my justification was I could go to school to learn drama, where here I could do it firsthand and be in the professional world, so I chose to go pro."

He has never looked back.

Most known for his Emmy-nominated turn as ambitious mortician Federico "Rico" Diaz in HBO's "Six Feet Under," Rodriguez has successfully bounced between TV and film throughout his 20-year career: His lengthy IMDB page lists at least one project every year since his 1994 screen debut.

Rodriguez's newest TV show, NBC's "The Night Shift" (10 p.m. Tuesdays), which premiered No. 1 in its time slot, according to the network, and has maintained an audience of about 6 million per episode, follows doctors who work the night shift at San Antonio Memorial.

Rodriguez plays the exceedingly complex Michael Ragosa, the nighttime hospital administrator charged with keeping the budget balanced and the resident bad boy doctor in check.

The series' sixth episode, which will air Tuesday, deals with a company of soldiers that is rushed to the hospital after a horrific bus crash.

Rodriguez, 39, oozed swagger recently as he walked into the executive lounge at the Drake Hotel. Dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and a black leather jacket, his jet-black hair parted just so, he looked like a reincarnation of the Fonz.

He's happy with his life and his career, he said, and on this gloomy, rainy morning he was inclined to reminisce.

"Every day I feel blessed and incredibly grateful," he said with a wide, toothy smile. "Especially now that I'm coming up on the 20th anniversary of 'A Walk in the Clouds' and 'Dead Presidents' and my first round of films, which has really put things into perspective and has been an incredible reality check for me. It makes you grateful."

Rodriguez's West Coast lifestyle is a far cry from his upbringing in then-perilous Bucktown. In 1991, 16-year-old Rodriguez told the Tribune that he had been at "very, very, very high risk" of falling into gang life until, at 13, he wound up in a play produced by the nonprofit Whirlwind Performance Company.

That show started him down the path that would eventually lead to Hollywood.

As a soon-to-graduate eighth-grader, Rodriguez sported a smirk as he took a bow after performing Whirlwind's "City of Neighborhoods" at the Blackstone Theatre (now called the Merle Reskin).

That was the moment Rodriguez decided to become an actor, he remembered.

"I starred in that play and I just sort of knew what I wanted to do," he said. "And it's all I have done since I was 13."

A 1989 Tribune article about the show said: "bright and self-assured" Rodriguez "stole the show in the leading role," a sentiment that Whirlwind founder Karl Androes echoed. (The Whirlwind Performance Company exists today with a slightly modified mission as Reading in Motion.)

"Freddy stood out right away because he was this ball of energy and this ball of desire right from the get-go," Androes said. "As the article said, he stole the show, and that was pretty much the case every time Freddy walked on stage.

"Whatever he had, he had it in spades," Androes added, "because he would walk out on stage and do a couple (dance) moves, and the girls in the audience would go crazy."

Carole Gutierrez directed Rodriguez in the Whirlwind show and helped him get an agent and worked with him on audition material in his early days.

Freddy "had a natural instinct; he just knew what to do," she said. "I think that comes from the purity and authenticity that he had as a kid. He just knew who he was . he had a natural ownership and magnetism."

After Whirlwind, Rodriguez studied drama at Lincoln Park High School and tried to stay focused.

"Getting to do my first play at the Blackstone and starring in it, you build up a healthy ego," Rodriguez said. "I had an agent at that time and I was auditioning, so my focus was more about doing that, trying to land a commercial or TV show, as opposed to school. I remember the first day of freshman year, (my teacher) slapped a book down in front of me and said, 'This year we are going to learn the history of drama.' I remember going, 'What? The history of drama?' I was just sort of restless. I just wanted to act."

On "The Night Shift," Rodriguez's hospital administrator Ragosa is not well-liked by many of the doctors, a casualty of having to enforce rules. Ragosa harbors desires to be a doctor himself, but a degenerative eye disease forced him into administration.

"He always wanted to be in the medical field, so the only way to stay in it is to become a suit, which he doesn't particularly like," Rodriguez said.

"Hospitals are businesses, too, and a business requires you to attain certain numbers to keep the doors open. In this particular business, you're dealing with people's lives, people's health, so when you're turning people away from obtaining heath, it's like making the decision whether somebody lives or dies all based on business. It's not a decision that he would make from a moral perspective, but he has to make it from a business perspective, or he gets fired and somebody else steps in and does the same thing."

With blood and guts galore on the show, Ragosa's quiet, paper-pushing role could get lost in the hands of a lesser actor.

Instead, Rodriguez infuses the role with intrigue and strength. Rodriguez's quiet moments resonate just as strongly as the action in the ER.

"Freddy never plays a stereotype," said Daniella Alonso, one of Rodriguez's co-stars. "He just tries to play that person's truth, and that truth comes through no matter who he's playing. He's just so intuitive."

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