'I Should Be Dead By Now': 'Gang Related' Actor’s Changed Life

"I was a mean guy and drugs made it worse," Emilio Rivera tells me his story as we enjoy lunch at Rick's Drive In And Out on Fletcher Drive in Los Angeles.

Rick's is a fast food joint Emilio visits on a regular basis. He says, "They treated me nice even when I was the bad guy in the hood."

Emilio is all about respect. If you respect him, he respects you. That's how he survived in a tough L.A. neighborhood known as Frog Town.

Why is it called Frog Town?

"Every street in the neighborhood ends with a dead end. The dead end is the L.A. River. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, after the rain, all the frogs would flood the streets. They thought it was out of the bible. You know what I'm saying," says Emilio with a smile.

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Yes, he is charming. But back in the day, when Emilio was truly gang-related, he says he was full of machismo. Always calling the shots and if someone didn't like it, too bad, Emilio didn't care.

Perhaps that's why on more than one occasion, members from a rival gang tried to get him killed.

Emilio remembers having to run for his life on his way to work one day. "I was being shot at. When you're getting shot at, you become like Spider Man and I was gone!"

Despite having such close calls, Emilio continued on his destructive path. His drugs of choice: heroine, crack cocaine and women. They cost him his first marriage and put a strain on his relationship with his kids.

Emilio says he knew he was hurting the people he loved but at the time, he was so lost, it didn't matter. That's how Emilio lived his life for years.

It wasn't until he realized he had lost more than 40 good friends to gang violence that he decided he'd had enough. He went into rehab and never looked back. Emilio has been clean and sober for the last 24 years.

Acting became the new drug. Emilio says it gives him the same rush without the negative consequences. When Emilio first tried to break into show biz, he says it was tough dealing with the rejection.

"I came in and I was a vato loco. I dressed up nice and they would look at me and say, 'We're not looking for your type.' But you're doing shows about my type," recalls Emilio.

So, he decided since Hollywood wasn't interested, he'd act on stage. Emilio says he was the first to expose his homeboys to the theatre.

"All these people that come dressed to the theatre and the whole back row would be all homeboys. They'd look around and be like, 'Am I in the right place,' I swear to God," says Emilio.

A lot has changed since then. Emilio has worked on more than 60 films and 42 television shows. He's currently working on Sons of Anarchy and FOX's Gang Related which airs on Thursday nights.

As I wrap up my interview with Emilio, I tell him, "You've come a long way Emilio." He says, "I know. I should be dead by now. It's all a blessing, definitely a blessing."

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