Born Esai Manuel Morales, Jr. on Oct. 1, 1962 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the son of Puerto Rican parents Esai Morales, Sr., a welder, and Iris Margarita, a prominent activist with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Morales lived with his mother after his parents separated while he was quite young, although a heated argument with her in his early teens prompted him to leave home. Soon after, the 14-year-old, who had shown an early interest in acting, found his way to the prestigious New York School for the Performing Arts. While there, he made his stage debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival in a production of "The Tempest" opposite the late Raul Julia. Other work from this early period included a stage production of "El Hermano" at the Ensemble Theater in New York. It was, however, Morales' breakout film debut in the gritty crime drama "Bad Boys" (1983) that brought him to national attention. As Paco Moreno, an unrepentant street thug seeking revenge against a fellow inmate (Sean Penn) in a youth correctional facility, Morales convincingly exuded enough malice that it allowed him to hold his own against the performance of the more seasoned Penn. He played the part so well, in fact, that for the remainder of his career he would struggle against being pigeon-holed in the role of the angry Latino.
Morales continually fought against ethnic stereotyping by playing a variety of them, including the role of a heroic Iranian in the TV miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett's bestseller "On Wings of Eagles" (NBC, 1986). Playing the hot-tempered "bad boy" would nonetheless remain a staple of the young actor's résumé, most memorably with his lauded portrayal of singer Richie Valens' troubled older brother in the hit feature, "La Bamba" (1987). Morales fared less well with the follow-ups "Bloodhounds of Broadway" (1989), a bland ensemble period comedy co-starring Madonna and Matt Dillon, and "Naked Tango" (1991), a romantic drama starring Vincent D'Onofrio. Other roles of the period included an impressive, albeit little seen, performance as a sociopathic kidnapper in the Roger Corman-produced erotic thriller "Ultraviolet" (1992), and a small turn in the silly sci-fi actioner "Freejack" (1992), starring Emilio Estevez and a conspicuously miscast Mick Jagger. In the Kevin Costner-produced "Rapa-Nui" (1994), Morales delivered an admirable performance alongside Jason Scott Lee as a 15th Century Easter Island native embroiled in tribal civil unrest. That same year, he reunited with Raul Julia for the biopic of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes in "The Burning Season" (1994), directed by John Frankenheimer.
Morales earned strong notices for his portrayal of another troubled urban Latino youth in the generational drama "Mi Familia" ("My Family") (1995), co-starring Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos. By the second half of the decade, the actor found himself looking more toward television for rewarding work in such projects as the based-on-fact story of one woman's struggle with bulimia, "Dying to Be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Pena Story" (ABC, 1996). He tried gamely to add depth to an underwritten role in "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca" (1997), a little-seen film that nonetheless earned Morales an ALMA Award nomination for his performance. Returning to TV, he essayed Miguel Gonzalez, the father of real-life Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, the young boy caught in the much publicized battle between his relatives, the government of Cuba, and the U.S. Immigration Department in "A Family in Crisis: The Elian Gonzalez Story" (Fox Family Channel, 2000). Morales' next big break came with his regular role as Paco Corrales in the drama "Resurrection Blvd" (Showtime, 2000-03), the first cable series to center entirely around a Latino family.
That role led to Morales' breakout part on the venerable police drama "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) as Lt. Tony Rodriguez in 2001, replacing James McDaniel as the head of the 15th Precinct's detective squad. Morales next joined the cast of another dramatic series, "American Family" (PBS, 2001-04) in 2002, playing Esteban Gonzalez, a man struggling to raise his son and put his life back together after his release from prison. Morales picked up a cameo in Richard Linklater's odd adaptation of Eric Schlosser's scathing satire of America's conspicuous consumption, "Fast Food Nation" (2006), prior to joining the cast of the short-lived mystery series "Vanished" (FOX, 2006-07). He also landed a recurring role in the post-apocalyptic drama series "Jericho" (CBS, 2006-08), a well-regarded show that, despite its loyal following, was unable to survive the fallout of low ratings. As futuristic family patriarch Joseph Adama in "Caprica" (SyFy, 2009-2010), Morales landed what had the potential to be one of his biggest roles in the much anticipated prequel series spin-off of the cult favorite "Battlestar Galactica" (SyFy, 2004-08). Starring opposite Eric Stoltz, he played the father of future Battlestar commander Bill Adama (played by Edward James Olmos in the 2004 series) in a show that looked more like a primetime soap opera than the space war saga of the previous series. Unfortunately, the project failed to attract its predecessor's fan base or create a new one of its own, which led to its mid-season cancellation.