Classic Hollywood: After 45 years, Pepe Serna is finally a leading man

Actor Pepe Serna of the film "Man From Reno."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Pepe Serna arrives carrying a big bag. Inside is a treasured bit of movie history: his prop arm from Brian De Palma’s 1983 gangster masterpiece “Scarface.”

Though he’s been in some 100 films, Serna is best known as Angel, Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) cohort in cocaine crime in the memorable thriller. Angel meets a grisly demise when his arm and leg are dismembered by a power tool.

“They tied me up,” recalls Serna. “It was a real chain saw but with rubber. When they went to my face, they shot blood at me with a pressure gun. The editor said when they shot me with blood in the eye, I didn’t flinch. I was so into the moment. At the time, it was the goriest scene in history.”

Serna, 70, flashes a wide smile and puts the arm back in the bag.


The role of Angel has paid unexpected dividends for him. Serna, who has done motivational work with kids for 50 years, has found that these young students are thrilled to meet him because of “Scarface.”

“We are all the writer-director-star-producer of our own life,” says the energetic Serna, dressed this overcast afternoon in a vibrant purple sports jacket. “We see life through our own eyes. That is my lesson to these kids. That is how I always look at everything.”

Serna has been a reliable and versatile character actor in films and TV since making his Hollywood debut in the 1970 Roger Corman production “The Student Nurses.”

Along the way, he’s worked with such directors as John Schlesinger (“The Day of the Locust”), Lawrence Kasdan (“Silverado”), W.C. Richter (“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”), Michael Schultz (“Car Wash”) and his good friend Edward James Olmos (“American Me”).


He’s also a painter — he’s the subject of a recently completed documentary, “Pepe Serna: Life Is Art” — and has been married to his wife, Diane, whom he met on the second day he was in L.A., for 44 years.

Serna notes that he’s always taken a role, no matter how small the part. “I always felt like I could bring truth to it,” he says. “That is where I was coming from. My thing is you got to work. We don’t get that many opportunes as Latinos.”

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Serna witnessed racism, “but I was an actor, so I didn’t buy into it. I had all my Mexican American friends. I had my African American friends and my Caucasian friends.

“I had an incredible life,” adds Serna, who decided he wanted to become an actor at age 3. “My father was an interpreter for all the Latin American pilots at the naval base. He was very well educated. My mother was a hairdresser who sang every day.”


After 45 years in movies, Serna is finally a leading man. He stars in Dave Boyle’s atmospheric film noir “Man From Reno,” which opens March 27. He plays Paul, a veteran sheriff of a small town near San Francisco, who while driving on a foggy evening accidentally hits a well-dressed Japanese man. When Paul tries to question the man at the hospital, he learns he has vanished without a trace.

Serna likes that the character he plays in the movie happens to be Latino but that he could be anyone.

“Here I am playing a Mexican American sheriff with a Mexican American daughter,” he notes. “But it has nothing to do with the fact I am Mexican American. I am just the sheriff. We are all the same.”

“Reno” is the third time Serna has worked for Boyle. He had smaller roles in Boyle’s debut feature, 2006’s “Big Dreams Little Tokyo,” and 2009’s “White on Rice.” “After ‘Big Dreams Little Tokyo,’ he called me and said, ‘I am going to write a lead for you,’” Serna says.


Serna was somewhat skeptical — he’d heard that from other filmmakers before. “Everybody says it, but nobody does it.”

But Boyle did.

“There was never anybody else in my mind for the role,” Boyle says in an e-mail interview. “Even though Pepe is a genius at playing the small, colorful supporting roles, I felt he had other notes to play. I wanted to see him try his hand at playing a taciturn, rugged, unsentimental leading man — the kind of role that usually goes to Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall or Harrison Ford.”

Boyle says he “absolutely” plans on working with Serna again. “Pepe is like my lucky charm.”


Serna has had a lot of luck himself, especially early in his film career, when he caught the attention of veteran producer Hal B. Wallis. He was cast in 1971’s “Red Sky at Morning” and the western “Shoot Out,” starring Gregory Peck and directed by the notoriously difficult Henry Hathaway.

“We were shooting in Bishop,” Serna says as he opens a folder and brings out a photo of himself and Hathaway on the set. “I had to lie in a pool of water for eight hours. He said, ‘Are you going to shiver, boy? I said, ‘No, sir, Mexicans don’t shiver.’ And I didn’t.”

Follow Classic Hollywood on Facebook