BROWNSVILLE — The actor Wilmer Valderrama caused a stir when he turned up in Brownsville Oct. 22-23, shooting video and rubbing elbows with locals as the star of a new Johnnie Walker campaign called “Keep Walking America.”
The campaign is billed as taking a stand for “cultural progress and diversity.” Brownsville was highlighted as “home to a cross-cultural generation” that reflects America’s current cultural fabric, according to the whiskey brand’s owner, Diageo.
Valderrama gained fame as “Fez” on the television series “That ‘70s Show” from 1998 to 2006, appeared in Richard Linklater’s film “Fast Food Nation” in 2006, and has landed roles in a number of TV series including “Awake,” “Raising Hope,” “Minority Report,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” series.
This year he joined the cast of the long-running CBS series “NCIS” as Special Agent Nick Torres.
Valderrama, who was born in Miami to Colombian and Venezuelan parents and grew up in Venezuela, arrived in Brownsville Saturday afternoon and was on a plane back to Los Angeles the following night.
He was filmed and photographed at iconic locations including the border fence, AliceWilsonHopeMemorial Park, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, and in an early Sunday morning shot with police blocking traffic, the middle of East Elizabeth Street in front of the old Majestic Theater.
It was arranged so Valderrama would meet with other celebrities with local ties: Mexican theater and television actress Bianca Marroquin, who grew up in Brownsville and Matamoros and starred on Broadway; brothers Mark and Rick del Castillo, Brownsville natives and founders of the Grammy-nominated band Del Castillo; and actor Adrian Gonzalez, born in Brownsville to Mexican parents and a graduate of St. Joseph Academy.
The Half Moon Saloon downtown served as a base camp of sorts and backdrop for photos, including shots of Valderrama and the del Castillos perched on barstools, whiskey tumblers in hand and Johnnie Walker bottles conspicuously arranged on the bar behind them.
The Half Moon became a magnet for local Valderrama fans on Sunday afternoon when he posted a public invitation on social media. The actor, taking a break from shooting “NCIS” on Nov. 2, told the Herald by phone he’d never had such an enthusiastic response from fans.
“I’ve got to tell you, I hadn’t experienced that before, to be able to put out a single Instagram post and have almost 1,000 show up in the course of 30 minutes,” Valderrama said.
The fan response is what he’ll remember most about his time here, he said, characterizing Brownsville as a “beautiful town” with “two perspectives so close to each other.”
“It’s a real sign of the future in America, how all the borders are going to kind of mesh and eventually influence one another,” Valderrama said.
As for his career, he said he was thrilled to join the cast of “NCIS,” now in its 14th season.
“I really love the cast,” Valderrama said. “Mark Harmon and I make a great team.”
Valderrama’s character, Nick Torres, is a tough guy with an excitable streak, he said.
“I’m the guy breaking down the door before he knocks,” Valderrama said.
Each season’s 24 episodes are shot back-to-back, then everybody takes a break until it’s time to shoot another season, he said. Valderrama said about 10 episodes for the new season had already been shot, noting that a typical work day is from 6:30 a.m. to 7 or 8 at night.
“We have full days but it’s fun because the crew is incredible,” he said. “The cast always swings hard too. We have a good time together.”
Valderrama said his big break came with “That ‘70s Show,” which he said introduced him “to the world and into people’s homes.”
He pointed with pride to his work on “Handy Manny,” an animated children’s show on which he voiced the title character, handyman Manuel Estevez “Manny” Garcia III, from 2006 to 2012.
“That was a beautiful family show,” Valderrama said.
In addition to breaking down doors for “NCIS,” his newest project is voicing Prince Charming for “Charming,” an animated fairy tale from the producers of “Shrek” due out next year.
“I’ve had a pretty eventful career,” he said. “I’m in a place where I can truly do the things I want.”