Elizabeth Peña has passed away at 55. At 5’2″ the pint-sized beauty was a powerhouse on the screen and stage for 40 years, helping open the door for more Hispanic actors/actresses to follow. Makes sense, with her parents’ background. The above photograph is a still from her scene in Andy Garcia’s “The Lost City” where her Communist ‘revolutionary’ character is insisting to Garcia’s night club-owning character how/why the saxophone is no longer allowed to be played in Castro’s Communist Cuba.
Here is a bit of her biography…
(IMDb Bio) – Her love for the arts came naturally, as her father was a well-known playwright, actor, director and novelist, so its not hard to understand that by the time she was eight, Cuban-American Elizabeth Pena already had designs to become an actress. Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, her parents, who opened off-Broadway’s “Latin American Theatre Ensemble”, were more than encouraging. Elizabeth attended NY’s “High School of the Performing Arts” and found occasional work in repertory theatre and in television commercials. Her film debut in the independent Spanish-speaking feature, El Super (1979), started her on a long line of feisty, rebellious characters that showed plenty of attitude. During the early 80s, she played everything, from a knife-threatening waitress to a disco queen, as she waited for her big break. That big break came in the form of the hugely successful comedy film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), co-starring Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte, in which she stole many scenes as the sultry, politically-minded maid, “Carmen”, who lusts for Nolte. This propelled her to move to Los Angeles, where she continued to spice up both the big and small screen, including the part of Ritchie Valens’ stepsister-in-law, in the well-received biopic, La Bamba (1987). Honors also came by Elizabeth’s way, when she received the “Independent Spirit” and “Bravo” awards for the film, Lone Star (1996), and the “ALMA Award” for Tortilla Soup (2001). On TV, she hasn’t found the one series role to thrust her front and center. Co-starring roles in Tough Cookies (1986), I Married Dora (1987) and Shannon’s Deal (1990) were short-lived. She is married and has two children … (on her refusal to portray Latin stereotypes) There are a lot of jobs I’ve turned down because they wanted me to play what I call “Miss Cuchifrito” types.
(The Hollywood Reporter) – Her nephew, writer Mario-Francisco Robles of the website Latino Review, shared the news in an obituary on the site. He said Pena died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She died of natural causes after a brief illness.
Pena broke into sitcom territory decades earlier when she toplined I Married Dora for ABC. The series ran for one season from 1987-88 and centered on a couple with a green-card marriage.
She also stood out as postal clerk Jezzie, who lives with a hallucinatory Tim Robbins, in the Adrian Lyne horror film Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
“I worked very hard to get Jacob’s Ladder,” she said in a 2001 interview. “At first they wanted Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell or Michelle Pfeiffer. At some point they wanted Susan Sarandon, and Madonna wanted the part. They auditioned all of them. I begged to be auditioned. I begged and begged and when I auditioned, the chemistry was right and Adrian and I were just taken with each other. I auditioned for six months, twice a week. The reason I kept going back was because Adrian was literally fighting for me to get the role.”
In Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Pena played the live-in maid who made out in her room with Richard Dreyfuss, and in Brett Ratner‘s Rush Hour (1998), she was LAPD bomb diffusion expert Tania Johnson opposite partner Chris Tucker.
Pena also recurred on the 2000-02 Showtime drama Resurrection Blvd. as family matriarch Bibi Corrales. She went on to direct an episode of the series, as well as episodes of Nickelodeon’s The Brothers Garcia, becoming the fourth Latina ever to join the Director’s Guild of America.
She also provided the voice of Mirage, the right-hand woman of bad guy Syndrome (Jason Lee), in Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004).
In La Bamba (1987), she played Rosie Morales, the sister-in-law of rock ’n’ roll icon Ritchie Valens, (Lou Diamond Phillips), and on Matador, she played the mother of Tony “Matador” Bravo (Gabriel Luna).
The Hollywood Reporter article mentions that shortly after she was born in New Jersey her parents moved the family back to Cuba until she was about eight or nine years-old, and then they moved back to the U.S. to New York City. I do not know what her politics and views on Castro and Cuba were, but I did enjoy her work. Please add to the comments section if readers have any more info on her. Thanks. Variety Latino has a beautiful spread on her career with more photographs.