Leon Ichaso, whose films explored Latino identity, dies at 74

Leon Ichaso, whose films explored Latino identity, dies at 74

Leon Ichaso, a Cuban-American filmmaker who, in “El Super,” “Crossover Dreams,” “Piñero,” “El Cantante,” and other films, examined themes of Latino assimilation and cultural identity -Americans, died Sunday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 74 years old.

His sister, journalist Mari Rodriguez Ichaso, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Ichaso, who came to the United States as a teenager, was writing publicity texts and directing television commercials in New York in 1977 when he saw an Off Broadway play called “El Super”, written by Ivan Acosta, and decided to try a new career.

“I remember he went to him and said, ‘I’m going to do this movie,'” his sister said.

He did just that, on a shoestring budget.

“I paid for the production car,” she added. “My father paid for the catering.”

The film, released in 1979 and directed by Mr. Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal, is about a Cuban man (played by Raimundo Hidalgo-Gato) living in exile in New York who works as superintendent of an Upper West apartment building. Side, resistant to assimilation. . Critics were impressed.

“It’s a funny, even-tempered, unsentimental drama about people in particular transit,” Vincent Canby wrote in a New York Times review. Decades later, the Miami Herald, reviewing Mr. Ichaso’s career, called “El Super” “the quintessential Cuban exile film.”

He followed 1985’s “El Super” with “Crossover Dreams,” about a rising salsa star who hopes to break out of Spanish Harlem and into the mainstream. The film, which Mr Canby described as “a wisely funny comedy that is both sincere and sophisticated”, gave singer Rubén Blades his acting role.

After “Crossover Dreams,” Mr. Ichaso moved away from Latin-themed movies for a while and worked steadily directing TV movies and episodes of “The Equalizer,” “Miami Vice,” and other series. . But he returned to this territory in 1996 with “Bitter Sugar”, a film set in contemporary Cuba.

“Bitter Sugar” went against the romanticized view of life in Havana that was popular in some artistic circles at the time, painting an ugly picture of the city that included drugs and prostitution. Its protagonist starts out pro-communist but ends up being so disillusioned that he attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Mr. Ichaso regretted that many festivals had not picked up the film – a result, he said, not only of the film world’s left-wing leanings, but also of festival officials’ desire not to offend critics. organizers of the Havana Film Festival.

“They don’t want to lose count of Cuba,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “Part of the film community flirts a lot with a dictator and a country and says it’s cute to travel to have a daiquiri and ignore what’s happening just 50 meters from the Hotel Nacional.

Mr. Ichaso’s next big project will become perhaps his most acclaimed film: “Piñero” (2001), about Miguel Piñero, an ex-convict-turned-playwright whose “Short Eyes” hit Broadway in 1974 but died. young in 1988.

Benjamin Bratt, who was familiar to “Law & Order” viewers, played Mr. Piñero, a Nuyorican, in what Stephen Holden, reviewing the film in The Times, called “a career-defining performance.” Mr. Bratt attributed much of his success in the role to Mr. Ichaso.

“His absolute faith in my abilities never wavered, even when mine did,” Mr. Bratt said by email. “He loved his actors, understood our delicate temperament, and harbored a confidence that would embolden you to walk a wire without a net. He was the tenderloin, and it was very easy to love him back for it.

In “El Cantante” (2006), Mr. Ichaso told the story of salsa singer Héctor Lavoe. Singer Marc Anthony portrayed Mr. Lavoe with Jennifer Lopez (Mr. Anthony’s wife at the time) as Mr. Lavoe’s wife.

In Mr. Ichaso’s films, “you can almost smell the rooms the actors are in,” Mr. Anthony told The New York Times in 2007. “He knows how to create a period piece; he understands the street, its humanity and its poetry. It captures the essence of our people, our neighborhoods.

Although Mr. Ichaso continued to direct for television until recently, his last Latino-themed film was “Paraiso” in 2009. Considered the third film in his trilogy on the experience of Cuban exile (after “El Super” and “Bitter Sugar”), it tells the story of a man who arrives in Miami on a raft and proceeds with his own brand of havoc. It was, Mr. Ichaso acknowledged in a 2009 interview with the Miami Herald, evidence of his ever-darkening view of Castro’s government.

“I consider the three films to be a trilogy, and this one is the end,” he said, “exploring newcomers, these new little Cuban Frankensteins that Castro makes and releases into the world.”

Leon Rodriguez Ichaso was born on August 3, 1948 in Havana. Her father, Justo Rodriguez Santos, was a poet and writer, and her mother, Antonia Ichaso, wrote for Cuban radio.

When Leon was 14, he left Cuba for Miami with his mother and sister; his father joined them there in 1968. By then, Mr. Ichaso had tried college briefly but dropped out. The family soon moved to New York, and there Mr. Ichaso learned filmmaking by shooting commercials for Goya Foods and other clients.

Mr. Ichaso’s marriages to Karen Willinger and Amanda Barber ended in divorce. His sister survives him.

Although Mr. Ichaso’s films were generally well-regarded, he never quite made it to the A-list of directors.

“There are directors who make a film, and they are set for life; I don’t,” Mr. Ichaso said in a 2007 interview with The Times. “Every time I make a movie, I think, ‘This is the one.’ But then nothing happens.

Mr. Bratt, who met his wife, actress Talisa Soto, while they were working on “Piñero”, said he admired Mr. Ichaso’s risk-taking.

“There was a keen curiosity about him, a twinkle in his eye that hinted at mischief and knowledge, a survivor wink that told you he’d been to hell and back. and that he probably enjoyed,” Mr. Bratt said. “He had a deep passion for poetry and music, and his films – inspired by the work of his heroes, Miles, Monk and Coltrane – were pure jazz, respectful of compositional structure but most alive when played in outside the lines, riffing, bold yours to follow.

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