Lou Diamond Phillips on how 'La Bamba' brought him to Hollywood — and the devastating moment he shared with Ritchie Valens's sister

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4-min read

Lou Diamond Phillips didn’t think he was the right fit to play Frankie Valli.

That’s not a misprint. It was, however, an error his agent’s office made when first alerting the young actor about auditions being held in Dallas for La Bamba — which, of course, was about the tragically curtailed life and career of Ritchie Valens — not future Jersey Boys subject Frankie Valli.

Born on a naval base in the Philippines and raised in Texas, Phillips was living in Arlington, working on local commercials and tiny underground film projects as well as teaching acting, when the call came in. “It came out of the blue, man. One hundred percent out of the blue,” Phillips, now 59, told Yahoo Entertainment during a new interview (watch above) promoting La Bamba’s re-release into theaters as part of TCM Big Screen Classics series.

Phillips impressed the casting director enough to be flown to Los Angeles for a screen test, where writer-director Luis Valdez initially planned to cast Phillips as Ritchie’s troubled brother Bob Morales, a role that would eventually go to Esai Morales in the biopic. La Bamba follows Valens (born Richard Valenzuela), who quickly became a rock ‘n’ roll sensation with three consecutive hits (“Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba”) over an eight-month span between 1958 and 1959 before he was killed at the age of 17 in a plane crash while on tour with fellow ill-fated stars Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Lou Diamond Phillips performs in a scene from the film 'La Bamba', 1987. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
Lou Diamond Phillips performs in a scene from the film 'La Bamba', 1987. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Eventually, Valdez decided he wanted Phillips as Valens. “The night that I switched from Bob to Ritchie, I remember walking down Pico Boulevard and going, ‘Oh God, now I gotta play Ritchie,’” recalls Phillips. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I am Ritchie. An unknown kid from the sticks with a big dream to become an actor in film and television. I thought, ‘This is me translated through the lens of the ’50s and rock ‘n’ roll as opposed to movies.’”

Phillips became incredibly close with the Valenzuela family, who took to calling him “Ritchie” during production and for the years that followed.

That lead to one particularly surreal moment for Phillips on the night they shot the harrowing sequence in which Valens boards the single-engined plane Holly chartered to fly them from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, N.D., while on tour. Valdez and producer Taylor Hackford cautioned Valens’s relatives not to come to the Burbank Airport set that night, but his younger sister, Connie Valenzuela Jr., didn’t heed their warnings.

“She was 12 when he passed, so she was truly affected by this, she had memories, she was old enough to feel that loss,” Phillips explains. “She came up to me, and I knew something was wrong immediately. She looked a little timid. … But she called me ‘Lou’ for the first time in like five weeks. … And I felt, ‘Wow, something’s wrong.’

“It was like floodgates opened. She literally collapsed into my arms. She started pounding on my chest, saying, ‘Why did you go? Why did you have to go?’ And I just realized that being there on the set that night, that was 30 years of pain that had a catharsis. And in the aCourage Under Fire of the movies, she could stand on that runway and maybe stop it from happening. … She had that moment to finally let it all out.”

La Bamba became an instant hit upon its release in 1987, paying touching tribute to the short but impactful and groundbreaking career of Valens. It also made an instant star of Phillips, who would go onto appear in films like Stand and Deliver (1988), Young Guns (1988) and Courage Under Fire(1994), and who currently stars on the Fox procedural Prodigal Son.

Phillips thinks back to having a beer with Daniel Valdez — the director's brother who was also a producer and co-star in the film — the Thursday night before the film’s premiere.

“He goes, ‘We’re about to hand you the keys to the candy store.’ I remember that to this day.”

La Bamba will be back in movie theaters as part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics series April 18, 21 and 22.

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