A celebration of the life of Mrs. Hazel Medina-Matz took place on March 24 at Riverside Church’s Christ Chapel in New York City. And what a remarkable observance of the life of this remarkable woman.
Medina-Matz was an exceptional human being who dared make her mark on the world as an actress, social worker and the loving and supportive wife of actor Jerry Matz, her husband of 31 years. Born in Colon, Panama, on Oct. 8, 1937, Medina-Matz made her transition from this world on Feb. 14 at the age of 74. She died at New York Presbyterian Hospital from complications related to multiple myeloma, a disease she was first diagnosed with in 2007.
Medina-Matz was the only child of Ernest and Lolita Frederick. Her mother’s father left his homeland of Jamaica and immigrated to Central America to earn a living as a digger on the Panama Canal. In due course, he decided to remain in Panama, where he raised his family.
His daughter Lolita subsequently married, then divorced and remarried, choosing to immigrate to America with her new husband and 8-year-old child. Settling in Pennsylvania, Medina-Matz attended the Blessed Sacrament at Pennsylvania’s Holy Providence School. During her first three years of high school, her family frequently moved from place to place until they finally relocated to Los Angeles, where Medina-Matz finished her senior year and enrolled in Los Angeles City College.
In 1967, Medina-Matz made her debut as an actress in the role of Bill Cosby’s younger sister on an episode of the popular TV series “I Spy.” For a subsequent TV role on “Gunsmoke”–the longest-running U.S. primetime live-action drama, on the air from 1955 to 1975–she was nominated for an Emmy Award. During the ’70s, the actress made guest appearances on various television shows including “Sanford & Son,” “MacMillan and Wife,” “The Rockford Files” and “Baretta,” for which she wrote a script. Early 1980s credits include “The White Shadow” and “Lou Grant.” During this period, Medina-Matz also appeared on various telepics, including “Women in Chains” and “Cry Rape.”
While residing in Los Angeles, Medina-Matz was a founding member of the Group Repertory Theater, a member of Theater West and a charter member and one-time president of the Kwanza Foundation, an organization created by African-American actresses to give back to urban communities.
In 1979, Medina-Matz accepted an acting job in New York City and met stage and screen actor Jerry Matz, who she married in 1981.
In New York, the William Esper-trained actress–who received her bachelor of arts degree in theater/drama from Fordham University, the College at Lincoln Center, where she served on their Advisory Board–became a member of Black Women in Theatre and the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC).
At the NEC, she was cast in the production “Prince/We,” by Pulitzer-winning playwright Charles Fuller. She also co-starred with the renowned actor Sullivan H. Walker in “Two Can Play,” by the eminent Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone. The production, which was brilliantly directed by Clinton Turner Davis, was later performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where Medina-Matz and Walker reprised their triumphant roles.
Some of Medina-Matz’s other off-Broadway credits included “The Crucible” (the Roundabout Theatre), “Nanny” (the Women’s Project), “Time Out of Time” (New Federal Theatre), “The Brixton Recovery” (South Street Theatre), “The Beautiful La Salles” (Wonderhouse Theatre), “Street Sounds” (Theatre for Forgotten) and “William Five,” for which she received an AUDELCO nomination for Outstanding Performance.
Amongst Medina-Matz’s daytime television credits are “Loving,” “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” Film credits include “I Think I Love My Wife,” “Ten Hundred Kings,” “Music of the Heart,” “Shattered Trust,” “Malcolm X,” “Longtime Companion,” “The Luckiest Man in the World,” “Limbo,” “Tuskegee (626)” and “The Last Tycoon.”
In the early 1990s, Medina-Matz decided to pursue a second career and began working on her master’s in social work from New York University.
Her decision to expand her horizon beyond the acting industry stemmed from her frustration over the lack of variety in roles for mature women of color.
As fate would have it, her position in the social work milieu–first as a part-time caseworker, then as a home care manager of the Isabella Geriatric Center until she retired in 2007–afforded Medina-Matz the opportunity to accept acting jobs, including TV roles on “Third Watch,” “The Bill Cosby Show” and several appearances on “Law & Order” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” as well as a recurring role on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” She was also the narrator of the PBS special “From Mambo to Hip-Hop.”
Medina-Matz always gave back to her community. She served as a volunteer with the Actors Fund Aids Initiative Program and the New York City Medical Reserve Corps and completed the 2004 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.
Coming full circle, Medina-Matz returned to Panama in 2004 for the first time since her childhood. She was so moved by the experience that she planned to produce a documentary about what she described as “a wonderful, splendiferous and joyful experience”–a phrase that her family, friends and everyone who were blessed to know this great, generous, gorgeous, gifted giant of a woman would say described Hazel J. Medina-Matz.
The “Caribbean Lingo” column pays tribute to the brilliant Caribbean professional talent of stage and screen and art forms of the highest caliber.