Balanced performing with career as social worker

Hazel Medina, who balanced careers as an actress and a social worker, died due to complications from multiple myeloma in New York on Feb. 14. She was 74.

In an acting career that ran more than four decades before her illness was diagnosed in 2007, Medina worked in film, on television and onstage, mostly in California and New York but also in regional theaters across the U.S.

Her film credits included “A Point of Betrayal,” “I Think I Love My Wife,” “Music of the Heart,” “Malcolm X,” “Watermelon Man,” “Longtime Companion” and “Limbo.”

TV credits included “Gunsmoke,” “The White Shadow,” “Lou Grant,” “Sanford and Son,” “Baretta” (for which she also wrote a script), “MacMillan and Wife” and “The Rockford Files.” She also appeared in telepics including “Women in Chains” and “Cry Rape.”

In Los Angeles, Medina was a member of Theater West and a founding member of the Group Repertory Theater. She was also a charter member and one-time president of the Kwanza Foundation, formed by African-American actresses to give back to inner-city communities.

Medina was born in Colon, Panama. Her parents divorced, and she came to the U.S. with her mother and stepfather when she was 8. The family frequently relocated, ending up in Los Angeles, where she attended L.A. City College.

The actress made her professional debut playing Bill Cosby’s little sister in a 1967 episode of “I Spy.”

She eventually settled into an actor’s life in New York, doing readings, workshops, Off Broadway productions, commercials and industrials. Medina belonged to Black Women in Theater and was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, for which she appeared in Charles Fuller’s “Prince-We” and co-starred with Sullivan Walker in Trevor Rhone’s “Two Can Play.” She was in “The Crucible” for the Roundabout Theater and was lauded for her performance in an Off Broadway production of “William Five.”

Although she continued to find work, Medina grew frustrated by the lack of variety in roles for mature women of color, and she completed a B.A. in social work at Fordham U., the College at Lincoln Center, and subsequently a masters in social work from NYU. Medina retired as a caseworker in 2007.

Her position allowed her the flexibility to continue to accept acting work mainly in television in shows such as “Third Watch,” “The Cosby Show,” “Law and Order” (several appearances) and a recurring role on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” in which she played Marianne, the nanny. Her voice was heard as the narrator on the PBS special “From Mambo to Hip-Hop.”

Medina was a volunteer in the Actors Fund HIV/AIDS Initiative.

She is survived by her husband, actor Jerry Matz.

A celebration of Medina’s life will be held at Riverside Church on March 24 at 11 a.m.

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