Hiep Thi Le, the Vietnamese-born actress best known for her starring role in the 1993 Oliver Stone film, Heaven and Earth, died December 19 of stomach cancer in Los Angeles at age 46.
She was born in Da Nang during the American war in Vietnam in 1971. Four years later, following the communist takeover, she fled the country with her mother and younger sister in a fishing boat. They reunited with her father in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, and came to the United States, settling in Oakland, California. It was a rough life, but thing improved significantly after Hiep Thi Le, almost miraculously, was chosen over scores of other women in an open casting call for Heaven and Earth twenty-five years ago. She played the role of Le Ly Hayslip, the Vietnamese-American writer who came to this country in 1973 in the film that tells Hayslip’s memorable life story.
Heip Thi Le received rave reviews and the movie was a hit. Afterward, Hiep Thi Le appeared in supporting roles in several movies and TV shows, then went into the restaurant business. She was the chef at China Beach Bistro in Venice, California, and then chef/owner of Le Cellier, a French-Vietnamese place in Marina Del Rey.
“Hiep was one of those actors and, even more important, she went from being a boat girl to a movie star to a woman who lived out the American dream,” casting director Heidi Levitt wrote in USA Today. “Hiep Thi Le left us with a legacy, a spirit and a story that will not be forgotten.”