Just another audition: On a Sunday afternoon Omar Caraballo shows up at a windowless North Miami warehouse to read for a part in a potential TV series called 2-100 Ocean Drive. Like a few other actors who have arrived before him, he finds a place to wait and reads through the script, written in only three days by director Mike Kirton, and hot off the photocopier. "Ya ready, Mad Dog?" is the first line, spoken by the main character, a rogue U.S. marshal named Slammer. "These punks are gonna be light housekeeping," replies Jose, Slammer's sidekick.
Caraballo, conservatively dressed and coiffed amid the assortment of tropical-print shirts, ponytails, and Mickey Mouse baseball caps, reads on: The marshals are cooling their heels in the Caribbean with little to do but throw back shots of tequila at a local watering hole, look the babes over, and get into fights. The two principal roles are already taken, and it's not clear which part Caraballo might be considered for.
If it requires a law-enforcement type, Omar Caraballo can do it. He has played such parts plenty of times -- on Spanish-language telenovelas, on America's Most Wanted and other true-crime shows, on a Luther Campbell video, and in a couple of Hollywood motion pictures, including Let It Ride, the 1989 feature starring Richard Dreyfuss. And you won't hear Caraballo complaining about typecasting. After all, he hasn't quit his day job: For almost fourteen years now, he's been a member of the Hialeah police force. "A lot of casting directors call me because they know I can play a good cop," says the 36-year-old actor/officer, whose camera-malleable face can take on anything from the stern, steely-eyed look of a cynical detective to the grinning mien of a neighborhood cop on the beat.
Despite his obvious market niche, Caraballo isn't merely a cop who wants to translate his macho self to the silver screen. No, Omar Caraballo sees a picture broader than Panavision. He's a Renaissance man: an auto mechanic, high school dropout, and former Navy medic who's preparing to enter law school (he wants to study entertainment law), working on a theology degree, studying Russian, and writing a screenplay about crooked cops for a B.A. in legal studies -- all while driving a patrol car and operating a pair of production-related businesses. He's also the divorced father of three girls who live with him in his pink three-bedroom Hialeah house.
"When I first met Omar, he was, for all appearances, another police officer doing his job," recalls Silvia Gonzalez, former coordinator of homeless programs for the City of Hialeah. When Caraballo was assigned to accompany Gonzalez on outreach visits to homeless people, a romantic and professional relationship ensued, and Gonzalez is now Caraballo's manager and unabashed 24-hour-a-day promoter. They are also collaborating on a documentary about the homeless. "I quickly realized that his first love was the film industry -- all aspects of it," explains Gonzalez. "I learned he had been in several films and TV novelas. He was not boasting. As a matter of fact, he was low-key and somewhat reserved."
Indeed, Caraballo does not readily reveal himself. For someone who has been theatrically inclined nearly all his life -- his first role was that of a sheep in an elementary school Christmas play -- he doesn't perform when he's off camera. He's probably too busy thinking about all his other projects. His Cop Shop, for instance, which supplies props A everything from badges to patrol cars. Or his production company, through which he has produced segments for several TV shows, including a masterpiece called Mujeres en la Carcel (Women Behind Bars) for the Spanish-language Telemundo talk show Sevcec.
"He'd be good for action-adventure roles," says Meris Zittman, his agent and president of the prominent Miami talent agency International Artists Group (IAG).
Ilse Earl, who directed the now-defunct Miami Actor's Studio, saw that potential during the early Eighties when Caraballo was one of her students. "He's an action actor; he's not a Shakespearean actor," says Earl, a former Miami Vice dialogue coach who now teaches acting in the town of Tequesta and recently saw one of her current pupils, a homicide detective, land a part on SeaQuest DSV. "But when you talk about action films, you're talking about films that sell. I think if circumstances were different, if Omar were in a bigger arena, he would have established himself more. But he's working in Florida and you can't get as far as quickly here. I think he belonged in L.A., but he has duties and responsibilities here that he didn't just chuck over. But I've got to hand it to him: Whenever he sees opportunity, he's going to go for it."
In that sense, Earl says, Caraballo reminds her of another actor she taught, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies at Miami-Dade Community College. "Sly Stallone was another one who never let go," she recalls. "You knew he was going to make himself heard. There are people who are as talented, if not more talented, who don't have that. Omar always displayed that kind of initiative; he applied himself."
Last year Caraballo created a public-service anti-drunk-driving campaign through his production company, Independent Productions and Filmworks. The theme was "Drink + Drive = Die," and featured a TV spot with frightening car-wreck footage. With Silvia Gonzalez's help, billboards and TV air time were donated and bumper stickers commissioned, all in time for the Christmas holiday season. Then, as often happens in Hialeah, politics intervened: Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolanos told Caraballo he couldn't run the campaign.
Gonzalez contends the move was initiated by Mayor Raul Martinez in retaliation for an open letter she had written for a city council candidate she worked for. Martinez says he knew nothing about the matter until he got an angry call from Mothers Against Drunk Driving after a Miami Herald story reported the cancellation. (Bola*os is recovering from surgery and wasn't available to comment.) Shortly after the campaign was aborted, Caraballo requested and received a transfer -- from the public information desk in the chief's office back to patrol.
"There's nothing like being a street cop," he says, seemingly determined to avoid politics like the plague.
But not acting. At the North Miami warehouse where he's waiting to audition, seasoned Hollywood character actor Alfie Weiss (his slightly squinty, chiseled visage might be familiar to Smokey and the Bandit fans), who has already been cast as the marshal's sidekick, shares a bag of pretzels and swaps carjacking stories with a statuesque blonde in army fatigues. The pilot is scheduled to be shot on location at a South Beach hotel -- where else? -- in a couple of days.
Director Kirton, an ebullient fortysomething man with a blond ponytail and a sunburn, saunters over to Caraballo and instructs him to read the part of the bartender. Four lines. The camera rolls and Caraballo begins: "So you're the monster, huh?" he says with a wry smile, focused intently on the wall in front of him. "I heard you could ruin somebody's day in a heartbeat." His light brown eyes, in a medium closeup, look tired, as if he has been washing glasses and mixing pina coladas all night.
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"That's good," says Kirton. "Very good. I'll be able to use you for this, or you'll play a policeman part. You'll work Tuesday for sure."
As Caraballo and Gonzalez are departing, Kirton calls out to the actor. "We don't know who you are yet," the director says, "but you're one of the guys