As she inherited her love for the arts by her father, well-known playwright, actor, director and novelist Mario Pena, it is not hard to understand that actress Elizabeth Pena already had designs to become an actress by the time she was eight years old.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on September 23, 1959, the petite (5'2") actress was raised in New York City. Elizabeth's (and sister Tania's) parents, Cuban immigrants Mario and Estella Margarita Peña, would achieve a strong Latino reputation as the founders of the off-Broadway Latin American Theatre Ensemble. They also encouraged Elizabeth's talent. In 1975, the young teenager became a founding member of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors, and two years later graduated from New York's High School of Performing Arts, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts.
Elizabeth found occasional work in repertory theatre and in television commercials. Making her film debut in the independent Spanish-speaking feature, El Super (1979) about Cuban refugees, she continued with a long line of independent and rebellious characters which showed plenty of attitude and independence. Playing offbeat roles -- from a knife-threatening waitress to a disco queen -- she appeared in such early films as They All Laughed (1981) and Crossover Dreams (1985). Elizabeth's big break came in the form a support role in the hugely popular and entertaining comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) co-starring Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in which she stole several scenes as the sultry, smoky-voiced, politically-minded maid "Carmen."
Two consecutive short-lived TV series came about around this time. Her first, the ensemble comedy Tough Cookies (1986), had her playing a police officer, and the second was the title housekeeper role in the sitcom I Married Dora (1987). High in demand now, Elizabeth continued to spice up both the big and small screen in such parts as Ritchie Valens' stepsister-in-law in the well-received biopic La Bamba (1987); a drug enforcement agent in the mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990); PTSD-suffering Tim Robbins's live-in girlfriend in the complex drama Jacob's Ladder (1990); a dedicated legal secretary in the corporate TV drama series Shannon's Deal (1990) starring Jamey Sheridan.
Honors also came by Elizabeth's way, when she received the "Independent Spirit" and "Bravo" awards for the film Lone Star (1996), and four "ALMA Awards for her performances in the TV movie Contagious (1997), the films Tortilla Soup (2001) and Rush Hour (1998) and her regular role in the Latino drama TV series Resurrection Blvd. (2000).
Into the millennium, Elizabeth found steady employment on TV with guest roles on "Boston Public," "CSI: Miami," "Without a Trace," "Numb3rs," "Ghost Whisperers," "Charlie's Angels," "Prime Suspect," "Common Law" and "Modern Family." One of her last roles was on the TV series Matador (2014). She also found herself further down the credits in films such as On the Borderline (2001), Transamerica (2005), [link0343996], Mother and Child (2009), The Perfect Family (2011), Plush (2013) and Grandma (2015). Three other films -- Girl on the Edge (2015), Ana Maria in Novela Land (2015) and The Song of Sway Lake (2018) -- were released posthumously. The also provided a voice in the popular Disney/Pixar animated film The Incredibles (2004).
A chronic alcohol problem severely hampered Elizabeth's life and she died suddenly in Los Angeles from cirrhosis of the liver on October 14, 2014, at the age of 55. She was survived by second husband (from 1994) Hans Rolla and their two children, son Kælan and daughter, Fiona.