Freddy Rodriguez, left, in his breakout role as ’Rico’ on HBO’s "Six Feet Under."
Freddy Rodriguez, left, in his breakout role as 'Rico' on HBO's "Six Feet Under." (HBO)

Freddy Rodriguez doesn't have much in common with basketball star LeBron James, but the actor points out one similarity: At a young age, he, too, faced the potentially life-changing decision of whether to "go pro."

In 1994, just a year after graduating from high school in Chicago, Rodriguez found himself with three options: He could enroll at Columbia College Chicago (his parents' choice), finish the audition process for a Goodman Theatre production of "The Merchant of Venice" or take a role in the period Keanu Reeves romantic film "A Walk in the Clouds," directed by Alfonso Arau.

He chose the film.

"My justification was I could go to school to learn drama, (or) I could do it firsthand and be in the professional world, so I chose to go pro."

He has never looked back.

Best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as mortician Federico "Rico" Diaz in HBO's "Six Feet Under," the actor has successfully bounced between TV and film throughout his 20-year career. His credits show at least one project every year since his screen debut.

His newest TV show, NBC's "The Night Shift" (10 p.m. Tuesdays), follows doctors who work nights at San Antonio Memorial Hospital. Rodriguez plays Michael Ragosa, the nighttime hospital administrator charged with keeping the budget balanced and the resident bad-boy physician in check.

Rodriguez, 39, oozes swagger as he walks into the lounge at a Chicago hotel wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a black leather jacket, with his jet-black hair parted just so for an interview.

He's happy with his life and career choice. "Every day I feel blessed and incredibly grateful," he says with a wide smile, "especially now that I'm coming up on the 20th anniversary of 'A Walk in the Clouds' and 'Dead Presidents' and my first round of films."

Before Playing Rico, the actor donned a cockroach costume to portray Deke, a film student in "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball's short-lived 1999 sitcom "Oh, Grow Up."

On that show, one of the characters "was making a deconstructed film version of 'Metamorphosis,' " recalls Ball, "and so he had to be a cockroach in a really cheesy costume. But (Rodriguez) approached it so seriously. A lot of actors come in, and they are like, 'I am photogenic and I am charismatic and that is all I need.' But Freddy ... was really focused in a way that stood out to me."

So when Ball was writing the "Six Feet Under" pilot, he says, "I had Freddy in mind when I wrote Federico, I mean, it's even the same name."

"Six Feet Under" (2001-05) centered on the Fisher family, which owned a funeral home. Throughout the series, Rodriguez imbued Rico with heart, humor and honesty, deftly balancing the character's desire to succeed with the emotional toll that getting bodies ready for burial took on him.

In one of the actor's most memorable scenes, he prepares a 3-week-old baby for burial on the cusp of the birth of his own child. Ball says, "I thought he ... really, really plumbed the depth of his emotional reservoir to put himself in that situation."

Actress Justina Machado, who played Rico's wife Vanessa in "Six Feet Under," calls Rodriguez a "chameleon." She says, "I think Freddy's brilliance is taking ... other people's words and transforming them into things that we'd never expect,. He's very funny, and he's very vulnerable and he's very strong."

"The Night Shift" actor Eoin Macken (who plays the bad-boy physician) says, "Freddy was in the first film ("Harsh Times," 2005) that I watched to actually study acting. There was something about (his performance) that just really connected with me."

In the show, Rodriguez's hospital administrator is disliked by many of the doctors, since he's the enforcer of the rules. Ragosa wanted to be a doctor himself, but a degenerative eye disease forced him into hospital administration, instead.

"The only way (he had) to stay in (medicine)," says Rodriguez, "was to become a suit, which he doesn't particularly like. Hospitals are businesses, too, and a business requires you to attain certain numbers to keep the doors open. You're dealing with people's lives, so when you're turning people away ... it's like making the decision whether somebody lives or dies. It's not a decision that he would make from a moral perspective, but he has to make it from a business perspective, or he gets fired, and somebody else steps in and does the same thing."

Rodriguez infuses Ragosa with strength and intelligence so his quiet moments resonate just as strongly as the action in the ER.

"Freddy never plays a stereotype," says Daniella Alonso, one of the series' co-stars. "He just tries to play that person's truth, and that truth comes through. ... He's just so intuitive."