Elizabeth Peña, an actress who appeared in major studio pictures like “Rush Hour,” independent films like John Sayles’s generational drama “Lone Star,” and a host of television shows, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was 55.
Her manager, Gina Rugolo, confirmed her death, saying it followed a brief illness.
Ms. Peña played everything from love interest to comedic sidekick in movies and on television for 35 years. She was a demolition specialist alongside Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in “Rush Hour” (1998). As Pilar Cruz, a history teacher who rekindles a romance with a small-town Texas sheriff in “Lone Star” (1996), she won an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actress. “The sultry Ms. Peña gives an especially vivid performance as the character who is most unsettled by the shadows of the past,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times in 1996.
Her first major film role was as Tim Robbins’s lover in Adrian Lyne’s psychological thriller “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990). She reportedly won the part over stars like Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell and Madonna.
A television regular, Ms. Peña appeared on shows like “L.A. Law,” “American Dad” and “Boston Public.” In the mid-1980s, she starred as a maid who marries her employer to stay in the United States in the short-lived sitcom “I Married Dora,” and starting in 2000 she played a hairdresser in “Resurrection Blvd.,” the Showtime drama about an upwardly mobile Latino family.
More recently she played the mother of Sofia Vergara’s character on the hit ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” even though she was only 13 years older than Ms. Vergara.
Elizabeth Peña was born in Elizabeth, N.J., on Sept. 23, 1959. Her father, Mario, was a Cuban actor, director and playwright, and Ms. Peña spent much of her childhood in Cuba before returning to the United States. She graduated from what is now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.
She performed in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” translated into Spanish by the poet Pablo Neruda, at the Gramercy Theater in 1979 and made her film debut in the Spanish-language film “El Super” that year.
Ms. Peña went on to play the mistreated wife of Ritchie Valens’s half brother in the biopic “La Bamba” (1987); Jamie Lee Curtis’s confidante in the action film “Blue Steel” (1989); and Richard Dreyfuss’s and Bette Midler’s maid in the comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986).
She also did voice-over work in the animated film “The Incredibles” (2004) and cartoons like “Justice League.”
She married Hans Rolla in 1994. He survives her, as does their son, Kaelan; their daughter, Fiona Rolla; her mother, Estella Margarita Peña; and a sister, Tania Peña.
Ms. Peña said that she researched Mexican-American culture to prepare for her part in “Lone Star.”
“I recorded people’s voices to get the proper inflection,” she told The Ottawa Citizen in 1996. “I crossed the border a whole bunch to collect a lot of history. I would sit for hours looking at the women, how they dressed.”
“In the United States, all Spanish-speaking people are lumped into one category,” she continued. “But we’re all so different.”