Who was Elizabeth Peña?
Elizabeth Maria Peña was a versatile film, TV, and stage actor, with a career spanning nearly 4 decades. Known for her performances in films such as ‘La Bamba,’ ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ and ‘Lone Star,’ the Cuban–American actor performed drama and comedy roles with equal ease. Born into a family of creative artists, she was inclined toward a career in acting since childhood and thus was trained in the performing arts. Starting with the film ‘El Super,’ she worked in numerous films, such as ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills,’ ‘Rush Hour,’ ‘Tortilla Soup,’ and ‘Nothing Like Holidays.’ She also worked in TV series such as ‘I Married Dora,’ ‘Shannon’s Deal,’ and ‘Modern Family. Peña was also a voice actor and a stage performer and had toured with the play ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ She had won awards such as the ‘Independent Spirit Award,’ the ‘Bravo Award’ and the ‘ALMA Award.’ She was a founding member of the ‘Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors.’ She had married twice and had two children. Peña died after a brief illness at the age of 55.
Childhood & Early Life
Peña was born on September 23, 1959, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Estella Margarita (née Toirac), an arts administrator and producer, and Mario Peña, a well-known actor, director, and novelist. She grew up with her sister, Tania, in New York City. Her parents had founded the ‘Latin American Theatre Ensemble.’ With such creative background, she made up her mind to make a career in the field of entertainment.
Peña studied in New York City’s ‘High School of Performing Arts’ and graduated in 1977. Initially, she worked in repertory theater and TV commercials.
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Peña made her film debut in 1979, with an independent film named ‘El Super,’ which featured her as a defiant teen, ‘Aurelita.’ This was followed by appearances in movies such as ‘Times Square’ (1980), ‘They All Laughed’ (1981), and ‘Crossover Dreams’ (1985).
She played ‘Rosie Morales’ in the 1987 biographical film ‘La Bamba.’ The film featured her with her ‘High School of Performing Arts’ classmate Ving Rhames. Her other classmate, Esai Morales, was her co-star in the TV series ‘Resurrection Blvd’ (2002), which featured her as ‘Tia Bibi Corrades’ in the episode ‘Justicia.’ She also directed that episode.
She got her breakthrough during the 1990s, with two diverse films. The popular comedy ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’ (1986) featured her as a sultry maid named ‘Carmen.’ The mystery drama ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990) featured her as ‘Jezzie,’ the enigmatic girlfriend of a Vietnam veteran. This role showcased her acting skills, especially when her expressions transformed from tender to menacing in the same scene.
One of her memorable roles was that of a teacher named ‘Pilar,’ reviving a relationship with her old friend (played by Chris Cooper), in John Sayles’s mystery film ‘Lone Star’ (1996). This performance earned her the 1996 ‘Independent Spirit Award’ for the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ and the ‘Bravo Award’ for ‘Outstanding Actress in Feature Film.’
Some of Peña’s other notable movies were the comic science-fiction ‘
Batteries Not Included’ (1987), the Jackie Chan-starrer action–comedy ‘Rush Hour’ (1998), and ‘Nothing Like the Holidays’ (2008). She won the ‘ALMA Award’ for her role of ‘Leticia Naranjo’ in the romantic comedy–drama ‘Tortilla Soup’ (2001).
Peña began her TV career with appearances in single episodes of a few TV series. She portrayed the role of ‘Dora’ in 1987 sitcom ‘I Married Dora,’ which showed a housekeeper named ‘Dora’ marrying her employer to escape deportation.
In John Sayles’s TV series ‘Shannon’s Deal’ (1990–1991), Peña portrayed the role of ‘Lucy Acosta.’ Though the series was short-lived, it received good reviews.
As a guest star, Peña appeared on TV shows such as ‘Numb3rs,’ ‘Ghost Whisperer,’ and ‘Major Crimes.’ She directed and acted in an episode of the TV series ‘The Brothers Garcia’ (2003), titled ‘It Was Fun While it Lasted.’ In the family sitcom ‘Modern Family’ (2013), she essayed the role of ‘Pilar,’ the Columbian mother of the character ‘Gloria,’ played by Sofia Vergara.
She also lent her voice to ‘Mirage’ in ‘Disney–Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ (2004), to ‘Rosa Santos’ in ‘Maya & Miguel’ (2004), and to the character of a store owner in ‘American Dad!’ (2007).
Peña worked in a number of stage productions, too. She played ‘Jesse’ in ‘Dog Lady’ (1984) and ‘Jane’ in ‘Becoming Garcia’ (1984). She also toured as ‘Juliet’ for a production ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ Her other stage appearances were for ‘Bring on the Night,’ ‘La Morena,’ ‘Night of the Assassins,’ and ‘Cinderella.’
Family & Personal Life
In 1988, Peña married William Stephan Kibler, a teacher. The couple divorced later.
In 1994, she married Hans Rolla, a carpenter and contractor. They had two children: a daughter, Fiona, and a son, Kaelan.
Peña died on October 14, 2014, at the ‘Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,’ Los Angeles. She had been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, which reportedly resulted in cardiogenic shock, acute gastrointestinal bleeding, and cardiac arrest.