Obituary: Miriam Colón

Theatre founder and ‘Scarface’ actor who played Pacino character’s mother

US president Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Medal of Arts to actress, director, theatre founder, Miriam Colón. Photograph:  Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Medal of Arts to actress, director, theatre founder, Miriam Colón. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

Miriam Colón, the diminutive but formidable actress who founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York and whose film roles included Al Pacino’s unswayable Cuban mother in Scarface, has died, aged 80.

Decades after she played the role, fans and journalists still asked Colón about her best-known film character. “The mother in Scarface was my mother,” she said in an interview in 2003. “It was like a tailor-made dress that was made for me: the mother that also works very hard, that is very stern, that has standards in her house.”

Referring to her character and to Pacino’s, a ruthless drug dealer and killer, she said: “She’s the only one that defied him, told him, ‘Get the hell out of here,’ that didn’t wind up with her head cut off. I love characters like that.”

Colón also worked on the New York stage from the beginning of her career and, in 1967, founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, with the goal of bringing free bilingual theatre to all parts of the city. In 1993 she received an Obie Award for lifetime achievement in off-Broadway theatre. In 2015 President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

Miriam Colón Valle was born 1936, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and grew up in San Juan. She began performing in school productions, audited drama classes at the University of Puerto Rico while she was still in high school and made her film debut, at 15, in Los Peloteros, a black-and-white sports drama set and filmed in Puerto Rico. At 17, she moved to New York to pursue an acting career.

Between 1955 and 1961, she appeared in 25 episodes of network shows, ranging from the western Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen, to the revered anthology series Playhouse 90, alongside Rod Steiger and William Shatner. Her first American television role was a 1955 episode of the mystery drama series Danger.

Colón went on to appear on TV in scores of other series and movies over seven decades. She also appeared in some two dozen feature films, including early roles in One-Eyed Jacks, directed by and starring Marlon Brando, and The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis, both in 1961.

Her other movie roles included The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), The House of the Spirits (1993), the all-star drama based on Isabel Allende’s novel; Lone Star (1996), John Sayles’ modern western; Gloria (1999); and All the Pretty Horses (2000), based on Cormac McCarthy’s cowboy novel.

One of her best-known films among Latino audiences was Bless Me, Ultima (2013), based on Rudolfo Anaya’s Chicano literary classic, in which she played the title character, a New Mexican healer.

She remained just as busy with her theatre career, although her Broadway experience was less than stellar.

Off-Broadway was another story altogether. In 1953, when she was still a teenager, she and Roberto Rodríguez founded a theatre company, El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico, and produced La Carreta (The Oxcart). Colón starred.

Fourteen years later she founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which became and remained “one of the city’s theatrical adornments,” as Mel Gussow wrote in the New York Times in 1983 in reviewing a revival of The Oxcart.

She remained the artistic director through 2014, when the company merged with Pregones and she became the artistic adviser.

Colón was 47 when she played the mother of Pacino, who was 43 at the time. In her seventh decade of acting she had graduated to grandmother roles, as the character names in her last screen roles attest. She was Chelsea’s grandmother in the Chris Rock comedy Top Five (2014). The next year she played Abuelita in the series Better Call Saul; Grandma in The Girl Is in Trouble, a crime thriller; and Abuelita Sanchez in The Southside, a murder drama.

Colón was a vocal advocate of both funding for the arts and personal self-reliance, as she explained in a 1992 article in the New York Times about overcoming her troupe’s financial difficulties (including a New York state cut in financing) that year.

“I’m not saying the government shouldn’t support us,” she was quoted as saying. “They should. We are just as entitled to that money as the people who build roads.

“But we must not count on it. Through no fault of our own, it can vanish.”

She is survived by her husband, Fred Valle, an actor, whom she married in 1987; a stepson, Fabian Valle; a stepdaughter, Wendy Valle; and four grandchildren. She was married to George Paul Edgar, a securities analyst and theatre backer, from 1966 until his death 10 years later.

– New York Times syndication