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Elizabeth Peña Remembered As An Actress With Range

Actress Elizabeth Peña arrives at the Hollywood premiere of Nothing Like the Holidays in 2008. (Getty Images for Overture Films)

Cuban-American actress Elizabeth Peña has died at age 55. She played dramatic roles in movies such as La Bamba and Lone Star and appeared in sitcoms including Modern Family.

Peña died Tuesday after a brief illness at a hospital in Los Angeles, according to her agent.

She grew up in an artistic family in Elizabeth, N.J. Her father, an actor and playwright, and her mother, an arts administrator, founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble in New York. Peña graduated from New York's High School of the Performing Arts. She landed her first film role in 1978, as Aurelita, the teenage daughter of Cubans living in exile in New York City, in León Ichaso's El Super in 1978.

Peña's fans, lamenting her death on Latino social media, expressed frustration that such a talented actress could not break away from stereotypical roles such as the seductive maid in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills or the housekeeper in the short-lived sitcom I Married Dora. As NPR's Felix Contreras puts it, Peña seemed "doomed to play ... the sassy best friend or the emotional Latina." But it wasn't for lack of trying. In interviews, Peña often talked about searching for parts where the character just happened to be Latina.

One of her breakout roles was as the sensual, world-weary history teacher who rekindles an old romance in the 1996 film Lone Star.

The director of that movie, John Sayles, said she was perfect playing a woman who had a lot "burning underneath."

"It was that kind of combination of intelligence, emotion and sexuality," he says.

More recently, she was the voice of Mirage, the Bond-style villainess femme fatale in The Incredibles. Before she died, Peña had finished filming the action series Matador for the El Rey TV Network.

Peña's nephew, Mario-Francisco Robles, who is a critic for Latino-Review, wrote in a tribute to his aunt:

"She did it all, and she made it look fun. She made it look easy. But I know it wasn't. I know she had a drive like no other, and that she was a force to be reckoned with when she decided it was time to make it big or ... well, nothing."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Actress Elizabeth Pena brought a kind of kooky charm to her many, many TV and film roles. The Cuban-American actress could also take on drama as easily as comedy. She died yesterday in LA at the age of 55. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With her almond eyes and doll's face, Elizabeth Pena could say a lot with just a look. In the 1996 movie, "Lone Star" Pena played a teacher in a Texas town who rekindles a romance with her high school sweetheart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LONE STAR")

ELIZABETH PENA: (As Pilar) So why did you come back here, Sam?

BLAIR: Pena was perfect playing a woman who had a lot of burning underneath, says "Lone Star" director John Sayles.

JOHN SAYLES: It was that kind of combination of intelligence, emotion and sexuality.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Pena's parents were immigrants. Her father had been a well-known actor and playwright in Cuba. She landed her first film role in "El Super," about Cuban exiles in New York City. Pena went on to have small but memorable parts in a number of movies, including "La Bamba" and "Rush Hour." Pena had range. Here she is playing Sofía Vergara's Columbian mother in "Modern Family."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

PENA: (As Pilar) I have a gift for little Fulgencio that has been in my family for three generations.

O'NEILL: (As Jay Pritchett) You know, about this naming thing - in America, it's not real common to hear the name Fulgencio.

PENA: (As Pilar) It's Fulgencio (pronouncing name differently).

O'NEILL: (As Jay Pritchett) Gen (pronouncing as Hen).

PENA: (As Pilar, speaking with accent) Gen.

O'NEILL: (As Jay Pritchett) I don't need to practice it 'cause I can't name my son that. I'm just being honest with you.

PENA: (As Pilar) No. No, no, no, no. That's good. I should be more honest with you sometimes.

O'NEILL: (As Jay Pritchett) Well, we've known each other a few years.

PENA: (As Pilar) I don't like you, Jay.

O'NEILL: (As Jay Pritchett) Huh?

PENA: (As Pilar) Nah.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Pena tried to stay away from stereotypes, though she did take jobs playing the sassy Latina and the seductive maid. John Sayles says Pena was very proud of her heritage but didn't want it to limit her as an actress. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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