Character actor, son of Mexican star, appeared in 'Zorro'

Mexican character actor Pedro Armendariz Jr., a near constant presence on screens big and small for more than four decades, died Monday of eye cancer in New York City. He was 71.

Armendariz, the son of Mexico “golden age” movie star Pedro Armendariz and actress Carmelita Pardo, appeared in some 140 films and dozens of Televisa skeins, mostly sudsers. The actor played Gov. Riley in the 2005 movie “The Legend of Zorro”; the president of Mexico in Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”; and the corrupt cop who stole the gun from Brad Pitt in “The Mexican.” He also appeared in 1989’s “Old Gringo” and in some of the top-grossing Mexican films in recent history, including all-time domestic B.O. champ “The Crime of Father Amaro” as well as action hit “Matando Cabos” and acclaimed political satire “Herod’s Law.”

Armendariz also played a key role in expanding the voice of a new generation of filmmakers and actors as president of the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences (AMACC) from 2006-10.

The sturdily framed thesp was instantly recognizable for bristly beards and mustaches that framed passionate, often wildly sparkling eyes, forming a countenance that could transform alarmingly from menacing to tender in the blink of an eye.

At risk of living his life in the shadow of his father, who was known as Mexico’s Clark Gable, Armendariz Jr. followed in his footsteps, taking his first film role on locations in Mexico for Westerns like “El cachorro” in 1965 and appearing in an episode of “Daniel Boone” in 1966.

Coming into his own during a dark period for the Mexican box office, when local production slowed to a trickle in the 1970s and ’80s, the actor worked with local auteurs like Arturo Ripstein, Felipe Cazals and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, while bringing home a steady paycheck with roles in telenovelas and character-actor bits in numerous Stateside pics, in which he was often cast as a Mexican tough guys, graying statesmen and Latin military types.

He, like his father, landed a role in a James Bond film — he played the arch President Hector Lopez in “License to Kill”; his father had played Bond ally Kerim Bey in “From Russia With Love.” They both played revolutionary General Pancho Villa onscreen.

Aside from some nods and wins at AMACC’s Ariel awards, Armendariz really only began to win widespread respect in the last decade or so, as he worked on multiple projects every year, even through most of 2011, and the industry began to look back at his sizable body of work.

Hitting the boards, Armendariz won further kudos for recent work in leading stage roles for Mexican productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Producers.”

In 2010, reacting to harsh industry criticism, Armendariz Jr., as president of the academy, led the transformation of the AMACC, opening voting privileges that previously belonged to an aging 25-person body that only evolved through attrition to more than 625 industry members, including producers, who until that time were barred from official voting status.

He also became a vocal political agent, fighting for industry support from Congress in heated budget battles over the last few years.

Armendariz will appear in several films posthumously, including Spanish-language Will Ferrell laffer “Casa de mi padre,” which opens March 16 and stars Mexican thesps Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.

Luna, speaking on Twitter, said of the actor, “Just seeing him made you smile. He had time for everyone.”

As news of the death spread Monday afternoon, condolences to the family mounted, even coming from Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Televisa’s CEO Emilio Azcarraga Jean, among other officials and members of Mexico’s media elite.

Armendariz was married and divorced twice, from former Televisa spokesmodel Lucia Gomez de Parada and actress-turned-activist Ofelia Medina. He is survived by several children.

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