The dark-haired man has a melodic Latin accent, something you don't often hear in the wooden booths at Werner's restaurant on Redwood Street. More baffling still, he's explaining to a co-worker why he's studying Chinese. Their conversation stops abruptly when a scruffy man approaches the cash register, pulls out a gun and demands all the money.
The dark-haired man jumps to his feet, as does his companion, guns in hand. "Stop," he commands with freeze-in-your-tracks authority. "Baltimore police."
"You a cop?" the would-be robber asks in disbelief, sizing up this guy in khakis, loose jacket and Henley shirt.
Hey, it's Ruben Blades. Of course, he's a cop.
From "The Milagro Beanfield War" to "Predator II," from "Color of Night" to the still-in-production "Devil's Own," Mr. Blades has spent much of his acting career carrying a badge. Now he's in Baltimore, playing a cop again, for the NBC pilot, "Falls Road."
"Six out of 20 roles," he says, after a quick mental review of his filmography. "That's still pretty high." He's also been a boxer, janitor and recovering alcoholic, but never a drug dealer.
He can afford to just say no to drug-dealer parts, because acting is only one of Mr. Blades' many pursuits.
You a singer? the guy with the gun might have gasped. Yes, an international salsa star, a composer with two Grammys who attracts up to 40,000 fans in Latin America venues.
You a lawyer? He has a law degree from the University of Panama and a master's in international law from Harvard.
You a politician? He ran for president of Panama in 1994. Official results say he was third in a field of seven, but he thinks he was really second. Today, the party he started, Papa Egoro, can claim seven representatives in the government.
And, while Mr. Blades is not studying Chinese, he is working on his French.
"I hate the question 'What do you do?'" the soft-spoken $l 47-year-old says. "Because it requires you to talk so much about yourself."
In this salsa-challenged city, the idea of a television show built around a Latino character may seem, well, loco.
Then there's the matter of the title, "Falls Road." The north-south route that stretches from the Jones Falls to the state line is too diverse to be particularly evocative. "Belair Road," now there's a name, as long as it's pronounced correctly, which is to say incorrectly. Or how about "The Avenue," which could be Pennsylvania, Eastern or 36th Street?
"We saw Falls Road as the connector, because these characters work in the city and live in the county," explains producer Trish Soodik. When agreement from her listener is not immediately forth- coming, she laughs. "Well, it's better than 'JFX.' "
The idea -- a family drama centering on a couple with two jobs, two children and all the inherent complications -- was hers. One understands the source of her inspiration when Ms. Soodik glances at her watch, calculating the whereabouts of her 8-year-old son: If it's 2: 30, he must be heading to his after-care program.
The script was written by her husband, Henry Bromell, an executive producer for "Homicide" who also has written for "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away." With "Homicide" done for the year, he's spending part of his time off as executive producer on "Falls Road." Twentieth Century Fox acted as matchmaker, fixing up Mr. Bromell and Mr. Blades to see if the two wanted to work together. They did, and the result is the pilot, which finished filming this week. The cop -- actually a detective with the Violent Crimes Task Force -- is now Luis Juega, an invented surname and a nifty pun: "He plays." Mr. Blades likes "Juega" because it doesn't evoke any single country or culture. And he likes the Baltimore setting, which renders the character's ethnicity so anomalous it becomes secondary.
"I thought that was very intriguing," Mr. Blades says. "I would be more of a person."
He is sitting in an empty banquet room at the Harbor Court Hotel, his home-away-from-home away from home-away-from-home. Just as no one job can claim Mr. Blades, neither can a single city. He lived in New York for years after arriving in the United Statesand has been spending time there recently for his next film and album. He has two homes in California and a place in Panama.
If "Falls Road" is picked up by NBC, he'll be living here, too, which is fine with him. Before anyone can suggest Baltimore might seem less wordly than his other homes, he launches into an impassioned defense.
"I've lived a lot of places, and it's totally arrogant to expect a place to be like other places," he says. "I'm working in this town. It's got the prettiest baseball stadium I've ever seen. And it's near places I want to visit, like Gettysburg."
No easy answers
Ask a seemingly simple question of Mr. Blades, get a detailed answer. As Norman Mailer said at the trial of the Chicago 7: Facts mean nothing without nuance.
We begin with the pronunciation of his name. The first name takes the accent on the second syllable. But because his grandfather was from St. Lucia, the last is Anglicized, one syllable with a long "A." His countrymen inevitably say "Blah-daze," just as they favor Spanish pronunciations for American products.
He was born in 1948 to Ruben Blades Sr. and Anoland Bellido de Luna Blades, a Cuban-born singer, musician and actress. His father was a cop, a nice irony in light of Mr. Blades' usual on-screen vocation.
Except "It's really more complex than that, like anything in my family," says Mr. Blades, explaining his father was a bongo player and athlete recruited by the National Secret Police as a ringer for its basketball team. Grandmother was a multi-hyphenate as well: feminist-writer-painter-vegetarian.
"So you see, my take on life was always one of choices," he says.
This is how it goes over the course of a 90-minute interview, one story flowing into another, each one dense with detail. Is this really the man who once sang: "I can't say/Words that seldom fail me stay away/Tongue-tied, I struggle to tell you, but clarity seems to desert me."
It turns out Sting wrote "I Can't Say," a rare cover for Mr. Blades. His other musical collaborators include Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. In films, he's worked with Jack Nicholson, Danny Glover, Robert Redford, Bruce Willis and, most recently, Harrison Ford.
If Mr. Blades is less famous in this country than the company he keeps, it reflects more on his choices than his performances. He has been in some fearsome flops, from Richard Rush's "Color of Night" to "The Two Jakes," the incomprehensible sequel to "Chinatown."
"It's baffling," is his only comment on how a large group of talented people happen to produce less-than-stellar work in some situations.
In 1994, Mr. Blades took a leave from acting and music to return to Panama and run for president. Over the years, he had spoken of his passion for politics in countless interviews. He followed events closely in his native land, writing frequent commentaries for the press there. But much of the North American coverage depicted him as some pop-star variation of Perot, running on the fumes of ego.
"The thing got so tight that the day before the election, the Miami Herald ran a piece with the headline 'Too close to call,'" he recalls. "But so many have those sound-bite approaches. I was just the musician guy."
A leading man
Mid-morning at Werner's, and the "You a cop?" scene has been run through at least five times. Waiting for filming to start, Mr. Blades sits in a booth with his on-screen partner, Gary Basaraba. A large man with curly hair, he played a grieving father on "Homicide" last fall. But the pork chop is unquestionably the star here. How is it different, playing the lead after so many supporting roles? His thoughtful reply is -- of course -- somewhat complex.
"As a supporting player, you move the story along," Mr. Blades says. "In a leading part, you have a more unifying role. You also have a lot more moments, while the supporting actor usually provides the motivation for the leads."
He adds with a smile: "And when you're a supporting actor, if the thing crashes and burns, it's not your fault."
Not that Mr. Blades has to worry about being idle if "Falls Road" isn't picked up. He'll find something to do.
Where: Knott Hall at Loyola University
When: 2 p.m. Friday
Cost: Free (open to the public)
Pub Date: 3/28/96