After 40 years in show business, it might seem that Paul Rodriguez was living a charmed life. After all, he’d been named one of Comedy Central’s 100 greatest standup comedians of all time and had acted in dozens of movies and TV shows, including “aka Pablo,” the 1984 sitcom that was the first in American TV history to feature an all-Latino cast.
Yet Rodriguez felt trapped in a downward spiral in June 2018. He was facing the loss of his lavish Studio City home amid dwindling career opportunities. He was depressed and planning to retire to his orange farm near Fresno when he was asked to perform at a fundraiser for Christ the King Church in Hancock Park and “The Center at Blessed Sacrament,” an innovative homeless program located at the Catholic parish of the same name in Hollywood.
Rodriguez thought the show would simply be a nice gig for charity. Then Father Don Woznicki, then the administrator of Christ the King and the organizer of the event, asked him to lead the crowd of 400 attendees in a decade of the rosary before the show.
It was an experience Rodriguez said reignited his long-dormant Catholic faith.
“It strengthened my faith in God,” said Rodriguez. “I was going through hard times, and I just put it in God’s hands afterwards. I hadn’t gone to Mass in a long time, and started going. I tried everything else before that and nothing worked, then overnight things got better. I sold my house and a lot of terrible things happened, then out of nowhere this movie comes.”
The movie Rodriguez is referring to is “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” a live-action adaptation of the classic children’s book, which Paramount Pictures is releasing as its big Thanksgiving weekend movie in 2020. He has one of the lead human roles in the movie as “Sanchez,” a bodega owner helping a child chase Clifford all over New York City to get him back.
Joining Rodiguez in “Clifford” is an all-star cast that includes comedy veteran David Alan Grier, Monty Python legend John Cleese and “Saturday Night Live” star Kenan Thompson. The role follows another unlikely break he received almost immediately after his night at Christ the King, in which he had the audience roaring during his performance and seeking autographs for more than an hour after his performance.
He landed the flashy starring role in the highly regarded Odyssey Theatre’s production of the classic satirical play “Steambath,” playing the attendant of a steam bath. As the show goes on, the attendant reveals that he is actually God in human form and the steam bath is actually purgatory. The role landed Rodriguez a prestigious Robby Award for Best Actor in a Comedy on the Los Angeles theater scene.
“ ‘Steambath’ plays on your stereotype of what God is,” explained Rodriguez. “These white guys see a Puerto Rican and say, ‘There’s no way that that’s God. He’s a Puerto Rican.’ The genius of [writer Bruce Jay] Friedman’s play is I change a couple things. God is a quirky funny guy, and this play says a lot about where we are and the state of grace.
“People think God is a white guy with a beard on a cross, the ideal Caucasian,” he added. “But God could look like you or me, he made us in his image. I got the Robbie Award, and I’m doing more plays and am going to teach at Fresno State and start a theater company for Latinos there.”
Rodriguez, 64, was born in Culiacan, Sinaloa, to Mexican agriculture ranchers. His family eventually moved to Compton, and after high school he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, landing stations in Iceland and Duluth, Minnesota.
He converted to Catholicism while in the Air Force after being raised with no strong faith practice while growing up. Yet despite his formal profession of faith, he spent the next 40 years until his 2018 epiphany only occasionally attending Mass and sometimes getting caught up in the worldly pleasures that are often afforded to show business celebrities.
Along the way, he became the father to world-renowned professional skateboarder Paul Rodriguez Jr., but their relationship was also often distant until his moment of truth last year. With the show having taken place shortly after Father’s Day, the comic felt the urge to reach out to his son and start anew, a successful effort that has seen them bond closely in the year since and led them to share Father’s Day together this year.
“That night changed me, because I was long thinking I was unfunny, but it was such a big night and the love was so strong from that audience, that I regained my mojo and sense of fun,” said Rodriguez. “Faith is a very personal thing, it’s in your heart. I met other Catholics that night who had put their faith first. I started praying and told God ‘It’s in Your hands. If you want me to do this, do a better job of showing me or I’ll retire in Fresno.’ ”
When his agent called with the news about the film he’d auditioned for a month earlier, Rodriguez remembered asking, “Are you sure you didn’t want my son?”
Not long after, Rodriguez was on a plane for a month of shooting.
“It’s made me more calm,” said the comedian of his reversion to the faith. “I don’t worry about things so much, it’s a new me and I feel great.
“Take it from someone who was floundering: It’s all about having a personal relationship with God.”
Carl Kozlowski is a journalist, comedian, and radio personality living in Los Angeles.
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