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.
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“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Elizabeth Pena,” El Rey said in a statement. “She was a role model, a truly extraordinary performer and an inspiration in every sense of the word.”
In John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), Pena was memorable as the history teacher who rekindles a teenage love affair with Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper). She recently guest-starred in a pair of Modern Family episodes as the mother of Sofia Vergara’s character, Gloria.
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).
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“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).
Less than a year after she was born in Elizabeth, N.J., Pena and her family moved to Cuba. She returned to the U.S. when she was nine to live in New York City. She graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan and started her film career with El Super (1979).
Pena is survived by her husband, two teenage children, her mother and her sister.
Oct. 15, 5:52 p.m. Updated with El Rey statement.