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 Sofia 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.
ED 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.
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