Family & Companions
Actor Tony Plana's career was filled with landmark roles in projects that changed Hollywood's portrayal of Latinos and their culture. The Cuban-born and London-trained actor, who appeared in numerous movie and television projects, gained prominence after starring in the theatrical and 1981 film version of "Zoot Suit," a musical about the wrongful persecution of a group of young Mexican-Americans in the 1940s. The character actor's raw and emotional intensity often found him cast in tough guy roles, from a Mohawk-sporting flight trainee in "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) to a Mexican bandit in "¡Three Amigos!" (1986). Plana also found success as a director, helming episodes for the Latino-centric series "Resurrection Blvd." (Showtime, 2000-02), in which he also starred. But it was playing against type as sympathetic widower and patriarch Ignacio Suarez in the groundbreaking television series "Ugly Betty" (ABC, 2006-10) that showcased Plana's versatility and ability to connect with audiences, making him one of the more beloved and respected character actors working in Hollywood.
Born on April 19, 1952 in Havana, Cuba, Plana was raised by his father, Pepe, and mother, Conchita, both of whom were bankers. In 1960, his family fled Cuba and relocated to Culver City, CA, where his father found work at a Tootsie Roll candy factory. After attending Loyola High School, he graduated magna cum laude from Loyola Marymount University, earning a bachelor's degree in literature and theater arts. He continued his theater training at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England. Back in the States, Plana became a fixture in the Los Angeles theater scene after he originated the role of Rudy in the stage production of "Zoot Suit," which made it all the way to Broadway. He made his own way to the screen, where he accepted minor roles in television shows like "What's Happening!!" (ABC, 1976-79) and feature films like "First Family" (1980), starring Bob Newhart. Meanwhile, the actor reprised Rudy for "Zoot Suit" (1981), a film adaptation of the play about a group of Mexican-Americans wrongfully charged with murder, which led to the Zoot Suit Riots that erupted in Los Angeles during World War II.
Thanks to his strong performance in "Zoot Suit," Plana's career had the way paved for bigger Hollywood projects. He captivated audiences as a flight trainee opposite Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), while showing his range in diverse roles, like playing a rebellious teen in the romantic comedy, "Valley Girl" (1983). After a supporting role in Haskell Wexler's war drama, "Latino" (1985), he began a working relationship with legendary director Oliver Stone, who first cast him in the role of Major "Max" Casanova, presidential candidate and former director of Salvadoran Intelligence, in "Salvador" (1986), starring James Woods. He had a hilarious supporting turn as Jefe, right-hand man to El Guapo, the evil leader of Mexican bandits who run afoul of the "¡Three Amigos!" (1986). After a comical cameo in the film "Born in East L.A." (1987) opposite Cheech Marin, he had a supporting role as a priest in "Romero" (1989), a biography depicting the life of slain Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero (Raul Julia). Following a collaboration with Clint Eastwood on "The Rookie" (1990), Plana portrayed Carlos Bringuier, the man who issued a press release warning the public about Lee Harvey Oswald in Stone's "JFK" (1991).
While his dramatic work moved audiences in both film and television, Plana continued to display his comedic side, co-starring as a mild-mannered and nurturing cop on the short-lived sitcom "Bakersfield P.D." (Fox, 1994). He worked behind the scenes as producer as well as co-starring in "A Million to Juan" (1994), a rags-to-riches comedy about a down-on-his-luck widower (Paul Rodriguez) who receives a check for $1 million from a stranger (Edward James Olmos). Back with Oliver Stone once again, Plana had a small role as Manuel "Manolo" Sanchez, personal servant to President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), in the director's underappreciated "Nixon" (1995). Plana delivered a strong supporting performance opposite Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Peña in John Sayles' excellent crime drama, "Lone Star" (1996). He was also gifted in playing authority types, including a detective in "Shadow of Doubt" (1998) and a judge in the 1998 episode "Just Looking" of "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002).
Plana finally reached new heights with his next project, "Resurrection Blvd." (Showtime, 2000-08), which proved to be a crowning achievement not just for Plana's career, but for the entire Latino community. The groundbreaking show was the first to be produced, written, directed and starred by Latinos. Tough, gritty and realistic, the cast and crew worked to eradicate Latino stereotypes. Plana starred as a single dad raising a family of boxers while struggling with illness. The actor said in various interviews that the most interesting part about his role as Roberto Santiago was playing someone who has successfully taken on a dual parental role. The actor also stepped behind the camera to direct the episodes "Saliendo" (2001) and "Un Amigo Viejo" (2002). During its two-season run, "Resurrection Blvd." was the most-honored series in Showtime's history, receiving Alma Awards for Best Television Series (2002) and Outstanding Actor in a Television Series (2001 and 2002) for Plana.
After settling into guest-starring roles on episodes of "The Closer" (TNT, 2004-12), "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-15) and "24" (Fox, 2001-10), Plana found mainstream success playing single father Ignacio Suarez on "Ugly Betty." The fish-out-of-water story of a bright, morally-conscious young woman working in a high fashion magazine turned young actress, America Ferrera, into a superstar overnight. But it was Plana as her onscreen father who brought heart and soul to the show week after week. Audiences loved how the Suarez clan in "Ugly Betty" was just like any American family living in New York, yet seeped with the eccentricities and values of their Mexican culture. Plana was pitch perfect as the loving and stern patriarch to his television daughters Ferrera and Ana Ortiz. The top-rated "Ugly Betty" was also the first series to be adapted from a successful Spanish program ("Yo soy Betty, la fea," RCN Television, 1999-2001) by a major American network.
The emotional strength his "Ugly Betty" character displayed on screen was no match for the actor's real life courage and determination. Plana held his family together through a difficult and painful time - his mother's battle with Alzheimer's disease. Faced with an illness he described to USA Today as "more painful than death," Plana became a member of the Alzheimer's Association, where he took part in various fundraisers, often with the support of his "Ugly Betty" co-stars Ferrera, Ortiz and Vanessa Williams. The actor's involvement with the Latino community also inspired him to develop "Beyond Borders: Literacy through Performing Arts," a program designed to help bilingual and non-English speaking students achieve academic success with the help of the East L.A. Classic Theater. Some of the theatrical projects Plana worked on with the East L.A. Classic Theater company also broke racial barriers by adapting Shakespeare into contemporary culture, from a Zoot Suit-themed version of "Romeo and Juliet" to a Mariachi musical adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing." Plana completed two films in 2009 - the crime drama "Life Is Hot in Cracktown" with Brandon Routh, and the mockumentary "Change Your Life!" in which he played a greedy self-help guru. A new generation of fans was equally impressed with Plana's work, which led the "Ugly Betty" actor to receive a nomination for Choice TV: Parental Unit at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards.
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Originated the role of Rudy in the L.A. production of "Zoot Suit"
Broadway debut, reprised role of Rudy in "Zoot Suit"
TV debut, "The Streets of L.A." (CBS)
Feature acting debut, "Love & Money"
Played Rudy in the film version of "Zoot Suit"
First film in a lead role was in Haskell Wexler's "Latino"
Appeared on Broadway in "The Boys of Winter"
TV series debut, "Veronica Claire"
Cast as caring partner Luke Ramirez in the police comedy, "Bakersfield P.D." (FOX)
Co-directed and co-produced "A Million to Juan" (also acted) with Paul Rodriguez
Played Luis Escobar in the ABC drama "Total Security"
Starred in "Resurrection Blvd." (Showtime), also directed episodes
Made solo directorial debut with the Showtime movie "The Princess and the Barrio Boy," featuring Marisol Nichols and Nicholas Gonzalez his co-stars from "Resurrection Blvd"
Portrayed the character El Fuego in "Half Past Dead"
Directed an episode of "Greetings from Tucson" for the WB Network
Had a recurring role on FOX's "24"
Cast in ABC's "Ugly Betty" as Betty's father, Ignacio Suarez
Nominated for the 2009 Teen Choice Award for Choice TV: Parental Unit