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

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Leon Ichaso, whose films explored Latino identity, dies at 74
Leon Ichaso, left, films a video featuring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez on a float during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. Ichaso, a Cuban American filmmaker who in “El Super,” “Crossover Dreams,” “Piñero,” “El Cantante” and other movies examined themes of Latino assimilation and cultural identity, died on Sunday, May 21, 2023, at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 74. (Susan Farley/The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

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

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

Leon Ichaso, who came to the United States as a teenager, was writing advertising copy and making 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 see it and said to me, ‘I’m going to make that movie,’” his sister said.

He proceeded to do just that, on a shoestring budget.

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

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

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

He followed “El Super” in 1985 with “Crossover Dreams,” about a salsa star on the rise who hopes to break out of Spanish Harlem and into the mainstream. The film, which Canby called “a sagely funny comedy, both heartfelt and sophisticated,” gave singer Rubén Blades his breakout acting role.

After “Crossover Dreams,” Ichaso moved away from Latino-themed films for a time and worked steadily directing television movies and episodes of “The Equalizer,” “Miami Vice” and other series. But he returned to that territory in 1996 with “Bitter Sugar,” a movie 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 so disillusioned that he tries to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Ichaso resented that many festivals did not pick up the movie — a result, he said, not only of the film world’s leftist leanings but also of festival officials’ desire not to offend the organizers of the Havana Film Festival.

“They don’t want to lose the Cuba account,” he told The New York Times in 1996. “Part of the film community very much flirts with a dictator and a country and says it’s cute to travel, have a daiquiri and ignore what’s going on just 50 yards outside the Hotel Nacional.”

Ichaso’s next major project would become perhaps his most acclaimed film: “Piñero” (2001), about Miguel Piñero, a former prison inmate turned playwright whose “Short Eyes” made it to Broadway in 1974, but who died young in 1988.

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

“His utter faith in my ability never faltered even when mine did,” Bratt said by email. “He loved his actors, understood our delicate temperament and nurtured a trust that would embolden you to walk out on a wire with no net. He was the net, and it was very easy to love him back for this.”

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

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

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

“I do think of the three films as a trilogy, and this one is the end,” he said, “exploring the new arrivals, these new little Cuban Frankensteins that Castro makes and sets loose on the world.”

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

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

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

Though Ichaso’s films were generally well regarded, he never quite ascended to the directorial A list.

“There are some directors who make a film, and they are set for life; that’s not my case,” Ichaso said in a 2007 interview with The Times. “Every time I make a film, I think, ‘This is the one.’ But then nothing happens.”

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

“There was a lively curiosity to him, a twinkle in the eye that hinted of mischief and knowing, a survivor’s wink that told you he had been to hell and back and probably enjoyed it,” 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 he played outside the lines, riffing, daring you to follow along.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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