One of the most popular and respected Latino comics in America, Paul Rodriguez was also an actor and producer who shared the humor and humanity of his upbringing with audiences of all backgrounds. The son of immigrants, he found his calling in comedy, and honed a stand-up act in Los Angeles that brought him to the attention of legendary television producer Norman Lear. That led to the sitcom "a.k.a. Pablo" (ABC, 1984), the first ever devoted to a Mexican-American family, and though the show was short-lived, it established Rodriguez as a quick-witted and compassionate comic. He soon parlayed his talents into a wide variety of venues - from HBO specials and TV guest spots to impressive character turns in dramas like "Ali" (2001) and "Blood Work" (2002). An in-demand performer after decades in the hard-knock business of comedy, Rodriguez remained a role model for up-and-coming Latino talent, and an enduring presence in nearly every form of media he attempted.
Born Jan. 19, 1955 in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, he was the son of migrant farm laborers who relocated to East Los Angeles. Rodriguez served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill with the intention of becoming a lawyer, but developed an interest in comedy through his elective courses. He soon became a staple on the Los Angeles comedy club scene and made occasional appearances on stand-up-oriented TV specials. A break came when he was tapped to serve as the warm-up act for producer Norman Lear's short-lived "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79) spin-off, "Gloria" (CBS, 1982-1983). Following in the few but fabled footsteps of Latino comics such as Desi Arnaz and Freddy Prinze before him, Rodriguez realized his true calling was in making people of all colors and creeds laugh at life's absurdities.
So impressed was Lear with Rodriguez's comic talents, he decided to build a sitcom around him. The result was "a.k.a. Pablo," a gentle family comedy about a young Latino man (Rodriguez) whose comedy act clashed with the values of his large, Mexican-American family. The show made considerable headlines at the time of its debut as the first mainstream television series about a Latino family, but viewership did not match the initial level of interest in the series. It lasted just eight episodes before being cancelled by the network. However, the impact on future generations of seeing a Latino comic and actor with his own television series - not shared with any non-Latino cohorts - was immeasurable.
Rodriguez made his feature debut in 1983 with a supporting role in the broad comedy "D.C. Cab," and for the next decade or so, balanced guest appearances on television with work in features and stand-up. Most of his movie appearances were in largely forgettable projects, though the Cheech Marin comedy "Born in East L.A." (1987) was a surprise hit in theaters and on cable. In it, he played Marin's Mexican-born cousin whose presence at a factory filled with illegal immigrants causes Marin - a naturalized citizen - to be deported to Mexico. In 1987, he returned briefly to series work with "Trial and Error" (CBS, 1988), an "Odd Couple" type (ABC, 1970-75) comedy about two Latino friends - one hard-working; the other (Rodriguez) free-wheeling - living as roommates. It too lasted for just eight episodes, while a subsequent effort, the action-comedy "Grand Slam" (CBS, 1990), with Rodriguez and John Schneider as bail bondsmen, lasted two months.
More successful was "El Show de Paul Rodriguez" (Univision, 1990-94), a bilingual, nationally televised sketch comedy and talk show hosted by and co-written by Rodriguez for the Spanish-language network, Univision. During its four-year run, it was an international hit, broadcast throughout the United States and to 17 countries in Central and South America. The exposure allowed Rodriguez to devote more time to television specials and projects that would benefit Latino rights and charities. He had been an active participant in specials on the importance of education, the political system and HIV awareness since the early 1990s. He was also a frequent performer on HBO's "Comic Relief" charity events, and devoted countless hours to the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Project Literacy, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and Housing Now, among many others. His support of the El Centro, California Police League led to the creation of a youth facility for teen area residents, which in turn resulted in the city naming January 22 in his honor.
In 1991, he shot "Paul Rodriguez: Behind Bars" (1991) for an audience of inmates at San Quentin State Prison. It would be the first of six eventual comedy specials he would produce for HBO. In 1994, Rodriguez made his directorial debut with "A Million to Juan," an independent comedy about a widower (Rodriguez) who is awarded $1 million with the caveat that he must repay the entire amount within a month's time. Though a non-starter at the box office, it remained in regular rotation on cable networks for years. Rodriguez soon branched into a new role as producer; first with the HBO stand-up showcase "Loco Slam" (1994), and later with the theatrical release, "The Original Latin Kings of Comedy" (2002), which featured him alongside some of the most popular Latino comics, including Cheech Marin and George Lopez.
The constant work and steadily increasing profile led to greater opportunities for Rodriguez as a performer. In "Tortilla Soup" (2001), he got the chance to play a romantic lead, albeit a hesitant one, as the baseball coach who uses his students to pen love letters to Elizabeth Pena. Director Michael Mann cast him as fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco in his sprawling biopic "Ali" (2001), and the actor faced off admirably against both Clint Eastwood in the thriller "Blood Work" (2002) and Anthony Hopkins in Roger Donaldson's "The World's Fastest Indian" (2006). Rodriguez also became a regular performer on animated specials and series, including "Dora the Explorer" (Nick Jr., 2000- ) and in the surprising hit feature, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (2008). However, in October of 2009, Rodriguez made news of a different kind when he was hospitalized with severe abdominal pains. Doctors were unable to diagnose the issue, which required him to stay in intensive care for several days. The problem was eventually attributed to food poisoning or cramping, but it made news due to the mysterious nature of his illness.
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Came to USA from Mexico with family (date approximate)
Began performing at Comedy Store in L.A.
Feature acting debut, "D.C. Cab"
TV acting debut, starred as Paul 'Pablo' Rivera on the ABC sitcom "a.k.a Pablo"
Debut as TV host, "The Late Show" (Fox)
Hosted the syndicated "The All New Newlywed Game"
Had recurring role on the CBS action adventure series "Grand Slam"
Debut as TV producer, "Paul Rodriguez: Behind Bars"
Feature directorial debut, "A Million to Juan"
Executive produced the HBO series "Loco Slam"
Made pilot for The WB sitcom "The Paul Rodriguez Show"
Co-starred in "Price of Glory"
Played recurring role on the Showtime series "Resurrection Blvd."
Had featured roles in "Rat Race" and "Tortilla Soup"
Appeared in "Blood Work", directed by and starring Clint Eastwood
Cast in "Baadasssss!" Mario Van Peebles's homage to his father Melvin's 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Featured in "A Cinderella Story" a modern day fairytale starring Hilary Duff
Voiced the character of Chico in "Beverly Hills Chihuahua"
Appeared in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," the sequel to the 2001 family film "Cats & Dogs"