Lupe Ontiveros, a Mexican-American character actress who struggled through Hollywood typecasting to play memorable roles in television and film and become a model of perseverance for Latino actors, died Thursday in Whittier, Calif. She was 69.
A son, Nicholas Ontiveros, said the cause was liver cancer.
Ontiveros worked steadily throughout a career of more than 35 years in roles as disparate as a murderous fan in “Selena” and a domineering mother in “Real Women Have Curves,” which brought her a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. She was nominated for an Emmy as Eva Longoria's suspicious mother-in-law in the ABC series “Desperate Housewives.”
In “Selena,” released in 1997, Ontiveros was so credible as the killer of the popular Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla, played by Jennifer Lopez, that for years the singer's fans would hiss at her when she walked into a public place.
“There were people who would stop her and say things,” the actor Edward James Olmos said. “She'd explain she felt the same way they did.”
As an actor, Olmos said, “she had this incredible ability to make you believe.”
Ontiveros' signature role became that of the Hispanic maid, which she figured she had played more than 150 times in television and films, like James L. Brooks' “As Good as It Gets” and Steven Spielberg's “Goonies.”
That she was repeatedly cast in the role mostly reflected Hollywood stereotyping and the lack of variety in roles offered to Latino actors, she said.
“They don't know we're very much a part of this country and that we make up every part of this country,” she told The New York Times in 2002. “When I go in there and speak perfect English, I don't get the part.”
Putting on a Spanish accent was part of acting for Ontiveros, who was born Guadalupe Moreno to Mexican immigrants on Sept. 17, 1942, in El Paso, Texas. Her parents owned two restaurants and a tortilla factory in El Paso, gave their only child dance and piano lessons, and sent her to Texas Woman's University, where she majored in psychology and social work.
Ontiveros was working as a social worker when her artistic leanings led her to pursue acting in the 1970s.
Along with Olmos, she was a cast member of “Zoot Suit,” which in 1979 was the first Mexican-American production to come to Broadway. In 1985, she became a founder of the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles.
Ontiveros pined for roles that would showcase her talents, she said in interviews. She wished to play a judge, or perhaps Hispanic heroines like the 17th-century Mexican poet and nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, or the union organizer Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers. But more often than not she was offered the maid.
Ontiveros, who stood 4 feet 11 inches, infused many of her parts with humor and held her own next to stars like Jack Nicholson, as she did in a scene in “As Good as It Gets,” in which Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive misanthrope Melvin tells her off and slams the door in her face, leaving her stunned.
Only Ontiveros' ambition and dedication kept her going, said Alex Nogales, another friend, who heads the National Hispanic Media Coalition and sent young Latino actors to her for advice. She was also an advocate for the hearing-impaired — a constituency that includes two of her three sons — and persuaded the producers of “Maya & Miguel,” an animated PBS series in which she voiced the grandmother, to incorporate American Sign Language in one episode.
“She never stopped trying,” Nogales said. “In a way we feel we failed her by not banging those doors down. In our community she was an icon.”
With characteristic saltiness, Ontiveros once said, “I've made chicken salad” out of chicken manure. But she did not regret playing so many maids, she said, because it allowed for steady work and for portraying working people with dignity. She narrated the 2005 documentary “Maid in America.”
“I'm proud to represent those hands that labor in this country,” she told The New York Times.
“I've given every maid I've portrayed soul and heart.”
Ontiveros, who lived in Pico Rivera, Calif., is survived by her husband, Elias Ontiveros Jr.; her sons Nicholas, Alejandro and Elias, and two granddaughters.