He remembers serving a salad to Jon Voight, who had just won for "Coming Home."
"I looked at him and thought, 'There's just a plate of chopped lettuce standing between where you are and where I am,' " he says, laughing.
Mr. Garcia understands ambition, passion and loyalty. He just doesn't believe in talking about them too much. In the current "When a Man Loves a Woman," for example, he plays a man who might be accused of loving too much. His character, airline pilot Michael Green, is so in love with his wife, Alice (Meg Ryan), that his protective, paternal manner inhibits her recovery from alcoholism.
"I don't think it's right to intellectualize any role," he says, his weariness showing a bit after a long day of interviews. "Yes, Michael has a paternal streak in him. He's a man who needs a family. Without a family, he feels like half a man. His drug is Alice. When Alice and he are apart, it's as if he's in detox."
The actor is one of the foremost examples of a Hollywood family man. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him as a dynamic godfather wannabe in "The Godfather, Part III," once said, "He is every inch his father's son and his daughters' father."
Mr. Garcia smiles broadly at the comment, nods agreeably but does not elaborate. He lives in Los Angeles with wife ("not in the movie business, but taking care of the house is a time-consuming gig") and three daughters, ages 10, 6 and 2.
"Los Angeles is a tough city to raise kids in, but can you name an easy city to raise kids in?" he says. "There are pitfalls everywhere. L. A. is not my geographical ideal, but I like it well enough to live there. At least, it's a city that's used to celebrities. Being the daughters of an actor won't make such a difference here."
Born in Havana in 1956, Mr. Garcia moved to Miami when he was 5. In Cuba, his father, Rene Garcia, had been a successful attorney and farmer, even developing his own variety of avocado. But after Fidel Castro came into power, the elder Garcia lost everything. In Miami, the father worked in a hosiery factory, often 12 hours a day, six days a week.
"My first couple of years in Miami, I think all I did was hit and get hit," the actor says, smiling slightly. "It was a protective measure. A lot of fights, a lot of hitting, but nothing really huge. Just a few punches so people would leave me alone."
And then, right after high school, he was infected by acting.
"That's what it was, really. It was like a virus was in me, and I couldn't get rid of the bug. So I had to focus on acting. It allowed me to use my imagination and my powers of observation like nothing else would. And I was exposed to a whole generation of actors. I loved Sean Connery as James Bond. I just thought he was the coolest man in the world. Then I played with Sean in 'The Untouchables.' He still is the coolest man in the world, I guess."
He had a series of intriguing roles in potentially fascinating movies that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. He was the jealous but honest cop taunted by Richard Gere in "Internal Affairs." He was Michael Douglas' life-loving partner in "Black Rain," a character clearly destined to meet a horrible fate. In "Hero," he was the homeless man who trades places with Dustin Hoffman.
And, of course, most famously, he was the heir apparent to the Corleone family throne in "Godfather III." The film was a disappointment, particularly in light of its two predecessors, but it won Mr. Garcia an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. One of that year's most memorable pre-ceremony arrival shots showed Mr. Garcia gleefully greeting co-star Al Pacino with a bearhug.
"In the early 1970s, no actor influenced me like Al did," he says. "And working with him made me see what an artist he really is. 'The Godfather' had been one of those films that influenced me to become an actor, and I was very proud that people felt I responded to the challenge of 'The Godfather, Part III.' The third movie services the other two movies. It's not a movie that stands on its own. It works in context with the other two movies."
Yet, it was sharply criticized, particularly after director Coppola cast his daughter Sofia when illness forced Winona Ryder to leave the cast. In his acceptance speech at the 1990 People's Choice Awards, Mr. Garcia cited Ms. Coppola's courage in playing the role. The portrayal became one of the cinema's legendary bad performances, but her co-star still defends her.
"Sofia never got a fair shake for that film. The work that she did was excellent considering she had no time to prepare for the part. One day she was told she had the part. The next day, she was before the cameras."
Mr. Garcia next will play a relatively small part as Michelle Pfeiffer's boyfriend in "My Posse Don't Do Homework," in which Ms. Pfeiffer plays an urban schoolteacher. He's doing it because he believes in the screenplay's message about education.
"I did a few scenes in 'Stand and Deliver' with Eddie Olmos for the same reason. The theme was important. And I love what 'My Posse Don't Do Homework' says. It's more about the kids than about Michelle and me. People don't understand the problems of inner-city kids."
He doesn't seem at all bothered that he's not the star. "You can do anything in this business. But the chances of doing something worthwhile are really fleeting."