Actor Lou Diamond Phillips is no stranger to the dramatic ups and downs and surprises of his profession. Just look at the way he burst onto the Hollywood scene in 1987 with the surprise hit biopic La Bamba after years of working in Fort Worth theater and small Texas-produced independent films. His portrayal of doomed '50s rocker Ritchie Valens won him acclaim. His next role, that of a troubled gangleader who is reluctantly inspired to change by a charismatic math teacher in Stand and Deliver (1988) -- which was actually finished before La Bamba's release -- and his portrayal of young outlaw Jose Chavez Y Chavez in Young Guns (1988) made it seem that Phillips' youthful prediction that he would become a major star would indeed come true. But then Phillips showed up in a long line of box-office and direct-to-video bombs and he disappeared into obscurity and he seemed destined to remain there for the rest of his career.
Phillips is one of Hollywood's most distinctive actors and is known for his intense performances. He is a tall, slender man with raven-black hair, deep-brown almond-shaped eyes, and cheekbones reminiscent of ancient Mayan statues. His distinctly "ethnic" looks come from his rich family heritage. Phillips claims he is part Hawaiian, Filipino, Cherokee, and Scots-Irish. His dark complexion and exotic looks have relegated him to "ethnic" roles in Hollywood. Phillips was born Lou Upchurch in the Philippines, the son of a naval aircraft mechanic, and raised in Flour Bluff, a small town near Corpus Christie, TX.
Though he received scholarships to the U.S. Naval Academy and to Yale, Phillips preferred to attend the local University of Texas at Arlington so he could remain close to his high school friends. While at school, Phillips found a growing passion for acting and after appearing in several drama club productions and in a local comedy troupe, believed himself destined for stardom. When real stars came to town, he would go to elaborate lengths to meet them. For example, when his idol Robert DeNiro came, Phillips dressed up as a bellboy and snuck up to the great actor's hotel room. After college, Phillips joined Fort Worth's tiny Stage West theater and stayed there for four years. During that period, Phillips appeared in such made-in-Texas independent films as Trespasses (1987) for which he also wrote the script. He associate-produced another of these films, Dakota.
After the only moderate success of Young Guns, Phillips' career faltered with films such as First Power (1989), the dismal Young Guns 2 (1990), and the laughably self-important Shadow of the Wolf (1992). Phillips made an inauspicious directorial debut with Dangerous Touch (1993), following it up with Sioux City (1994). Though he worked steadily in films through the decade, Phillips was almost a forgotten quantity in Hollywood.
In 1995, Phillips' career took a surprising and unexpectedly successful turn when a casting director spotted Phillips and brought him in to audition for the role of King Mongkut in a new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Despite having only worked relatively briefly on-stage, Phillips was personally approved by the Rodgers estate to play the part. Phillips realized that in taking it, he would be expected to fill the shoes of the great Yul Brynner who originated the role. It did not help that many critics did little to hide their surprise and dismay at the audacious casting of Phillips, who was determined to find new nuances in the Siamese King's relationship with British schoolteacher Anna. Phillips also made important changes for the character, especially in his appearance. Despite the naysayers' dire predictions for the musical's revival, Phillips succeeded in his goals and the show became a smash hit. Among the benefits of his reemergence has been renewed interest in Phillips from Hollywood. Though he never really left, Phillips had a "comeback" when he starred opposite Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire (1996).