Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
July 26, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

As Emily Post knew, the importance of a thank-you note is not to be underestimated.

Courage Under Fire director Ed Zwick had an unknown actor in mind for the part of Monfriez, a hardheaded Gulf War marine whom Denzel Washington’s character suspects of telling something other than the truth. But Lou Diamond Phillips was determined to snatch the role.

”My wife, Kelly, drove me to the audition,” he remembers, digging into a plate of Cuban rice and beans before heading down Broadway to star in the revival of The King and I. ”When I walked out, I said, ‘I just had the audition of my life. If I don’t get this job, it ain’t about acting, it’s about something else.”’ To keep ”something else” at bay, Phillips, 34 — who wallowed in forgettable fare after 1987’s La Bamba and Stand and Deliver made him a name — sent Zwick a fan letter. ”I looked at this role and said, ‘You know what? Nobody could do this better.’ There are times when you go, ‘I deserve to be in this game.”’

Playing Courage‘s game meant a brutal exercise regimen to become the tough-as-titanium Monfriez, five weeks filming in the desert near El Paso, and no break before coming to New York in April to debut in The King and I, which earned the Texas native (no, he’s not Chicano, he’s Filipino, Scotch-Irish, and Cherokee) a Tony nomination. ”He was the most eager and willing member of a most happy ensemble,” says Zwick. ”He has an extraordinary intensity and charm.”

Phillips’ trophy to himself for playing Monfriez is a promise that his next career move doesn’t include nonstarters like 1992’s Shadow of the Wolf. He’s scheduled to continue in The King and I until next April, though his Broadway contract gives him the option to make another film in the fall. Either way, says Phillips, ”I think I’m gonna have to be more careful.” And keep up his epistolary skills: When Zwick called with the good news, Phillips recalls, ”he said, ‘Hey, kid, you got the part. Can’t wait to work together. And by the way, it was the kiss-ass note that got you the job.”’

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