Actress and producer Carmen Zapata, one of the most respected Hispanic-Americans in the performing arts, died Sunday night in Van Nuys, Calif., from complications of heart failure. She was 86.
Zapata was perhaps best known to wider audiences for her roles in the film “Sister Act” and its sequel, both starring Whoopi Goldberg, and for her recurring role as Mrs. Castillo on the soap “Santa Barbara,” but she was also a champion of bilingualism, co-founding in 1973 the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, a theater company dedicated to bringing the Hispanic experience and culture to the Southern California community through bilingual stage productions. And on PBS, she played the town mayor in “Villa Alegre,” a bilingual series that ran for nine seasons beginning in 1973.
The actress started on the stage, making her 1946 Broadway debut in the chorus of “Oklahoma.” She also appeared on the Rialto in 1956 in drama “The Innkeepers,” starring Geraldine Page, but that drama’s run was short. Zapata did regional or summer stock work in “Bloomer Girl,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Carnival,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “No Strings” and “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” She also did standup comedy for a few years, billing herself as Marge Cameron to avoid discrimination.
She was already in her 40s when she made her bigscreen debut in the very early Michael Douglas effort “Hail, Hero!” (1969) and her TV debut the next year in “The Bold Ones: The Protectors.”
The actress also appeared in series including “Room 222,” “Bonanza,” “McMillan & Wife,” “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mod Squad,” “Adam-12,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Kojak,” “McCloud.” Frustration with ethnic typecasting led her to seek creative outlets outside the conventional paths, but she continued in TV: The 1980s saw her in roles on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “Fantasy Island” and in her recurring role on “Santa Barbara.”
With the gravitas that comes with age and her own sense of dignity, Zapata began playing judges: On “Falcon Crest” and the series “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” in the TV movie “Secrets” and in the “La Femme Nikita” feature remake “Point of No Return,” starring Bridget Fonda. She even voiced a jurist for “Batman: The Animated Series.”
She did more feature work in her later years, including “Death in Granada” in 1996, “The Egg Plant Lady” in 2000 and “The Sleepy Time Gal” in 2001.
But Zapata’s real focus during this time and later was a lecturer at universities and theater conferences across the U.S.
Carmen Margarita Zapata was born in New York City, the daughter of a Mexican father and Argentine mother.
The actress received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003 (pictured above).