An obituary by Anita Gates for the New York Times.
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,” died on Friday in Manhattan. She was 80.
Her husband, Fred Valle, said the cause was complications of a pulmonary infection.
Decades after she played the role, fans and journalists still asked Ms. Colón about her best-known film character. “The mother in ‘Scarface’ was my mother,” she said in an interview for the NPR program “Fresh Air” 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 Mr. 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.”
Ms. 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 theater to all parts of the city. In 1993 she received an Obie Award for lifetime achievement in Off Broadway theater. In 2015 President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
Míriam Colón Valle was born on Aug. 20, 1936, in Ponce, P.R., 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.
Her enrollment at the Actors Studio, where she was said to have been the first Puerto Rican member, led to an abundance of roles in the early days of television, and she worked with big names from the beginning. 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”; her director was John Frankenheimer, and her co-star was John Cassavetes.
Ms. 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), a thriller; “The House of the Spirits” (1993), the all-star drama based on Isabel Allende’s novel; “Lone Star” (1996), John Sayles’s modern western; “Gloria” (1999), Sidney Lumet’s remake of Cassavetes’s gun-moll drama; 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 theater career, although her Broadway experience was less than stellar. Her debut, in “In the Summer House” (1953), starring Judith Anderson and directed by José Quintero, was well received, but her other two Broadway plays, “The Innkeepers” (1956) and “The Wrong Way Light Bulb” (1969), closed after only a few days of performances.
Off Broadway was another story altogether. In 1953, when she was still a teenager, she and Roberto Rodríguez founded a theater company, El Nuevo Círculo Dramatico, and produced “La Carreta” (“The Oxcart”). Ms. 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.” The play itself, he said, had already “served as an object lesson to generations of Hispanic Americans.”
Ms. Colón found the company’s first permanent home in 1981, when she noticed an empty firehouse on West 47th Street, where it remains today as Pregones Theater Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. She remained the artistic director through 2014, when the company merged with Pregones and she became the artistic adviser.
Ms. Colón was 47 when she played the mother of Mr. 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 (the Spanish diminutive for grandmother) in the AMC series “Better Call Saul”; Grandma in “The Girl Is in Trouble,” a crime thriller; and Abuelita Sanchez in “The Southside,” a murder drama.
Her survivors include Mr. 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 theater backer, from 1966 until his death 10 years later.
Ms. 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.”