A New York-born actor of Puerto Rican descent whose performances in such efforts as La Bamba and Rapa Nui offered a lingering, devastating sense of depth, Esai Morales found success on screens both large and small. Frequently challenging stereotypes and always imbuing his characters with individuality, he was first inspired at the age of 12 by Al Pacino's searing performance in Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Speaking only Spanish until the age of five, Morales showed talent in a series of stage roles in and around New York City. He graduated from New York's prestigious High School of the Performing Arts before appearing in productions at the Ensemble Theater Studio (El Hermano) and New York's Shakespeare Festival in the Park (The Tempest). In 1982, the actor made his screen debut in the Paul Morrissey film Forty Deuce. His role as Sean Penn's imposing nemesis in the following year's Bad Boys offered a horrific glimpse of the violence of juvenile detention facilities, and, in 1987, Morales cemented his reputation as a talent to watch when he played ill-fated rock & roll singer Ritchie Valens' brother in La Bamba.
Equally adept at playing menacing tough guys or more sensitive characters, Morales eschewed stereotypes with roles as an Irish bootlegger in Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) and an Argentine gangster in Naked Tango (1991). A memorable role as an Easter Island native involved in a painful civil war in 1994's Rapa Nui earned him rave reviews, despite going largely unseen, and the handsome actor was again impressive as a Mexican-American youth in My Family the following year. Morales also drew praise in 1997 for his top-billed role in The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, and after portraying the father of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzales in the made-for-TV feature A Family in Crisis: The Elian Gonzales Story, Morales stood out with an ALMA-nominated role as Lt. Tony Rodriguez in the enduring police drama NYPD Blue. He also appeared in such features as Paid in Full (2002) and Isla Bella (2004), and had a recurring role in PBS's eagerly anticipated Mexican-American-themed series American Family. In addition to his TV and film work, the self-described activist volunteers time to such organizations as the Earth Communications Office, the Wildlife Preservation Fund in Costa Rica, and the Health Education AIDS Liaison.