MIAMI— Actor Steven Bauer recently sat before an audience of mostly Hispanic theater students in the heart of Miami, sharing vivid memories from when he was growing up in this city, in the 1970s.
Bauer is known now for playing a spectrum of ethnically diverse characters on both big and small screens—he’s been a Cuban sidekick to Al Pacino’s legendary Tony Montana in "Scarface," an Italian-American detective in "Running Scared," an Israeli fixer on "Ray Donovan" and a Mexican drug-lord in "Breaking Bad." Bauer, who in real life is Cuban-born and South Florida-raised, got emotional recalling his desperate childhood dreams of fitting in.
“All I wanted to do,” he said, his voice trailing off, “was to be American, to fit into this country.”
It’s a feeling familiar to so many immigrants, and particularly to their U.S.-born or raised children—the ongoing toggle between cultures and traditions, languages and identities. The navigation of that rich but complicated space, along with the art of weaving a blended and never quite balanced cultural identity that draws on some things but not all things from each world, has long provided fodder for novels, short stories and magazine articles.
Forty years ago, it was also the subject of ¿Qué Pasa USA?, the groundbreaking bilingual television sitcom that followed three generations of a Cuban family in Miami who came to America looking for a better life. It happens to be the show that launched Bauer’s acting career and, though only 39 episodes were produced between 1977 and 1979, it became a cult hit. It aired on PBS stations across the country and preserved all these years in syndication.
On Thursday in Miami, the show returns to life in the form of a stage play titled ¿Qué Pasa USA Today?”—and it’s precisely what has brought Bauer back here. Four decades later, he’s reprising his role as Joe, the oldest child of the Peña family, around whom the original series centered.
“Joe’s character is the closest to me of any character I’ve ever played,” said the 61-year-old Los Angeles-based actor.
After the series’ initial success, Hollywood casting agents took note of the strapping young Bauer, then known as Esteban “Rocky” Echevarria. He wound up leaving Miami for Hollywood, training with the famed Stella Adler, borrowing his maternal grandfather’s last name to change his own—and, just like that, his star was born.
Still, “I’m excited to continue Joe’s story, because he and I have a lot in common," said Bauer.
“Joe moved away because he wanted to feel American," said Bauer about the original series. "Now, he’s returning, not because he misses the Miami Cuban food or the cafecito or hearing Spanish or any of the accoutrements of the culture. He’s coming home because it makes him feel…” Bauer pauses to hold back a well of emotions. “It makes him feel like himself. That’s been my story too.”
Tickets to the nine scheduled performances at the city’s storied Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts have sold at lightning speed—a testament to the show’s enduring popularity. The new version, written and produced by a new generation of creatives, takes place in present day Miami and focuses on several original characters, in addition to Bauer’s. It will also introduce new characters who reflect an even more diverse landscape than the one depicted in the original episodes—but will likely steer clear of politics, as the original series always did.