The world bid farewell to many outstanding actors, artists and musicians this year. Black Cinema Connection pays tribute to the brilliant African American performers we lost in 2014. They may be gone, but will not be forgotten.
Juanita Moore (10/19/14 – 1/1/14)
Groundbreaking film, television and stage actress and Academy Award nominee, Juanita Moore collapsed and died on January 1, 2014.
Ms. Moore received a supporting actress nomination for the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, in which she played opposite Lana Turner in a story about a struggling white actress’ rise to stardom, her friendship with her black housekeeper, and how they raise their daughters as single mothers. The film became a big hit and later gained a cult following. Moore is unforgettable in the scene in which she painfully stands by as her daughter Sarah Jane, who is attempting to pass as white, introduces her to her white colleagues as her old nanny. On her deathbed, Annie forgives her errant daughter. “Tell her I know I was selfish – and if I loved her too much, I’m sorry – but I didn’t mean to cause her any trouble. She was all I had.” Ms. Moore was the fifth African American to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Born in Los Angeles, Ms. Moore relocated to New York in search of a stage career. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s she performed as a dancer in Harlem nightclubs and later overseas in London and Paris. She started out in films playing extras and small uncredited roles including such movies as Double Deal (1939), Pinky (1949), and Witness to Murder (1954). In addition to film, Moore was also active in the theater. In the early 1950s, she played at Los Angeles’ Ebony Showcase, a leading Black-run theater which provided a venue for Black performers to play the types of roles they were denied elsewhere. She was also a member of the celebrated Cambridge Players, along with other performers including Esther Rolle and Helen Martin.
Unfortunately, after her triumph in Imitation of Life, Moore’s film and television roles were marginal. She gained more satisfaction from her stage roles as Mama Lena in the London production of A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and on Broadway, in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner (1965). In the 70s, Moore profited somewhat from Blaxploitation movies, appearing in The Mack (1973), Thomasine and Bushrod (1974) Abby (1974) and others. On television, she was in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 77 Sunset Strip, Dragnet, Mannix, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, MD, The Richard Pryor Show, Judging Amy and ER. Moore continued to work in films and television until 2001, her last movie role being the wise grandmother in film The Kid (2000).
Sources: Legacy, New York Times, Tributes.com, L. A. Times, The Guardian, IMDB. Photo Sources: The Guardian, Atlanta Black Star, News One.
Lee Chamberlin (2/14/38 – 5/25/14)
Lee Chamberlin, an actress and playwright whose career spanned several decades on the stage, in television and films, died on May 25th in Chapel Hill, NC. Ms. Chamberlin, who lived in Paris, was visiting her son in Chapel Hill when she died from metastatic cancer. She was 76. From 1971-73, Ms. Chamberlin was an original cast member of The Electric Company, the hit PBS show that taught basic grammar and diction to elementary school students using parodies, sketches and musical numbers, along with Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Rita Moreno.
Lee Chamberlin was born Alverta La Pallo on February 14, 1938. She started acting on Off-Broadway stages performing in a short-lived 1970 production of Slaveship, by the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka then known as LeRoi Jones (who died January 9, 2014). In 1973, she jumped from children’s television back to the theater playing Cordelia in King Lear alongside James Earl Jones, Paul Sorvino, Rosalind Cash and Ellen Holly. The play, which was produced in Central Park in New York City, won Chamberlain rave reviews.
Chamberlain soon moved on to films, co-starring with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier in the comedy classics, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let’s Do It Again (1975). Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, she appeared in many popular television shows such as Lou Grant, The White Shadow, Diff’rent Strokes, What’s Happening, NYPD Blue, Roots: The Next Generations, Touched By an Angel, Sparks, The Practice among others.
From 1983 to 1995, she was the supportive mother of the popular character Angie Hubbard, played by Debbi Morgan on the ABC soap opera All My Children, her longest recurring role.
Ms. Chamberlin’s thirst for the immediacy and intimacy of the theatre and playwriting led her to write the music and lyrics for Struttin’, an off-Off Broadway production which earned Chamberlin seven Audelco Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre. She also wrote and performed in a one woman play, Objects in the Mirror…(are closer than they seem) which was produced at The Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, New York in February, 2010. In 2011, she founded the non-profit organization, Playwrights’ Inn Project, Inc. to nurture the work of African American playwrights.
Source(s): The New York Times; Broadway World; Daily Mail; Playwright’s Inn Project website. Photo Source(s): NNDB.com; Fanpix; Playwright’s Inn Project website.
Maya Angelou (4/4/28 – 5/28/14)
Celebrated poet, memoirist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou died May 28, 2014. Dr. Angelou published numerous autobiographies, essays, and poems, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, derived from My or Mya Sister.
Dr. Angelou had first-hand experience with sexual abuse, racism, single parenting, poverty, seeking higher education, creating wealth, living through and participating in the civil rights movement. In later years she would embrace popular culture working with rappers, poets, musicians and filmmakers. Writing about her experience with eloquence and detail, Maya Angelou recorded history through poetry, biographies, journalism, children’s books, cook books and essays, painting a picture of the American landscape for generations to come.
In the late 1950’s Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. With guidance from novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the autobiographical novel that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international acclaim, making the bestseller list. The book was banned in many schools during that time due to Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused. The book was made into a television movie which first aired on CBS in 1979 and starred Constance Good, Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosley, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, and Madge Sinclair. Dr. Angelou would go on to pen more than 30 bestselling titles.
Dr. Angelou also wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As an actor, she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. Over the next ten years she worked as a composer of movie scores, wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, poetry, and produced plays.
Maya Angelou also appeared on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta.
Dr. Angelou was also an educator and political activist. In 1960, she moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of an English language weekly, then later moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. During her years abroad, Dr. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. She was later named visiting professor at several colleges and universities. Beginning in the 1990s, she made approximately 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, left her devastated, but Maya continued her work in Civil Rights and was widely recognized as an international ambassador for good will crossing lines of race and culture. She served on two presidential committees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts and the National Medal of Arts in 2000. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor in 2010.
Although she had reportedly been in poor health and had canceled recent scheduled appearances, she was working on another book, an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders. Dr. Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. Source(s): Mayaangelou.com; Winston-Salem Journal; Photo Source(s): Academy of Achievement; Visionaryproject.org; Epiphany Channel; Wikipedia.
Ruby Dee (10/27/22 – 6/11/14)
Ruby Dee died on June 11, 2014. She was an American actress, playwright, screenwriter, activist, poet and journalist.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 27, 1922, Ruby Dee grew up in Harlem and got involved in acting as a teenager. She began studying her craft at the American Negro Theatre, a company that also educated talents like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. She had her first major career breakthrough in 1946, when she took the title role in the ANT’s Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. That same year, she met actor Ossie Davis while performing in the play Jeb. The couple married three years later and eventually had three children together. Dee soon appeared in various films, including That Man of Mine (1947) The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), No Way Out (1950), Edge of the City (1957) and St. Louis Blues (1958).
In 1959, Dee landed a starring role on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. She earned great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in the drama about a struggling African American family. Two years later, Dee reprised her role in the film version of the play. Around this time, she joined forces with her husband to appear in the play Purlie Victorious. Davis wrote the southern comedy in which he and Dee co-starred together. The pair reprised their roles for the 1963 film adaptation.
In 1968, Dee worked behind the scenes, co-writing the screenplay for Up Tight! in which she also starred. On the small screen, Dee appeared on the popular primetime soap opera Peyton Place, and later had her own series on public television with her husband entitled, With Ossie & Ruby.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, Dee gave a number of stellar performances. She picked up Drama Desk and Obie awards for the 1970 play Boesman and Lena, and an Emmy Award nomination for her role in the 1979 miniseries Roots: The Next Generation. In the early 1980s, Dee starred as author Zora Neale Hurston in the play Zora Is My Name, which later aired on PBS. She and her husband both won positive notices for their work with director Spike Lee on his film Do the Right Thing (1989). They also appeared in Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). Also in 1991, Dee won an Emmy Award for her work on the television movie Decoration Day.
In addition to the many projects they worked on together, the couple was also very active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in marches and speaking out for racial equality. They were master and mistress of ceremonies at the 1963 March on Washington and were friends of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1999 the couple was arrested while protesting outside New York City police headquarters against the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Dee told reporters the shooting “reminds me of when there were lynchings all over the country.”
In 1998, Dee and her husband published With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, a look at their life experiences during their 50 years of marriage. Sadly, in 2005, Dee suffered the tremendous loss of her husband, when he died unexpectedly.
Dee continued to perform into her 90s. Among her recent work, she was hired to narrate the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta (2013), which followed the lives of Coretta Scott King, played by Angela Bassett, and Betty Shabazz, played by Mary J. Blige, after the assassinations of their husbands.
On June 11, 2014, Ruby Dee died of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, at the age of 91.
Source(s): Biography.com; CNN; ossieandruby.com. Photo source(s): People; Notable Biographies; Twocentstv.com; Wikipedia; Pintrest.
Meshach Taylor (4/11/47 – 6/28/14)
Another familiar Hollywood face bid farewell on June 28, 2014, actor Meshach Taylor. He died at age 67 at his Los Angeles area home. Many may remember him from the TV series, Designing Women, in which he played assistant Anthony Bouvier, a lovable ex-convict surrounded by four boisterous Southern belles at an Atlanta design firm. He also appeared in other numerous TV and film roles. Taylor had fought a terminal illness and faded markedly in the days before his death. He was surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren, and mother as he passed away.
The Boston-born Taylor relocated to New Orleans where he started acting in community shows. He set up a Black arts theater to keep kids off the street, then joined the national touring company of Hair.
In 1979 he headed for Los Angeles and eventually landed a role as the assistant director in Buffalo Bill, the short-lived NBC sitcom about an arrogant and self-centered talk show host. Seemingly his gig on Designing Women could have been even more short-lived. It was initially a one-shot deal. He was scheduled to appear in the Thanksgiving show, about halfway through the first season, but producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason told him if the character clicked with audiences he could stay on. It did. He spun comic gold with co-stars Jean Smart, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts and Delta Burke and remained on the show during its entire run from 1986-1993.
Source(s): CNN, Legacy. Photo Source(s): Celebrity Birth, Deaths and Marriages; USA Today; IMDB; Uptown Magazine.
Geoffrey Holder (8/1/30 – 10/6/14)
Geoffrey Holder, a Tony Award-winning director, actor, painter, dancer and choreographer who during an eclectic show business career, led the groundbreaking show The Wiz to Broadway, pitched 7-Up on TV and played a scary villain in a James Bond film, died from complications of pneumonia on October 6th. He was 84.
Geoffrey Lamont Holder was born into a middle-class family on August 1, 1930, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Geoffrey attended Queen’s Royal College, an elite secondary school in Trinidad. There he struggled with a stammer that plagued him into early adulthood. Growing up, Mr. Holder came under the wing of his talented older brother, Arthur Aldwyn Holder, known to everyone by his childhood nickname, Boscoe. Boscoe Holder taught Geoffrey painting and dancing and recruited him to join a small, folkloric dance troupe he had formed, the Holder Dancing Company. Boscoe was 16; Geoffrey, 7.
In 1954, Mr. Holder had the good fortune to arrive in New York at a time of relative popularity for all-Black Broadway productions as well as Black dance, both modern and folk. For a while Mr. Holder taught classes at the Katherine Dunham School and was a principal dancer for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1956 to 1958. In the meantime, at a dance recital, he caught the attention of the producer Arnold Saint-Subber, who was putting together a show with a Caribbean theme. Thus, Mr. Holder made his Broadway debut on December 30, 1954, as a featured dancer in House of Flowers.
He also appeared with his troupe, Geoffrey Holder and Company and worked with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Pennsylvania Ballet and The Dance Theatre of Harlem. He won Tony awards in 1975 for directing and designing the costumes for The Wiz, his all-black retelling of The Wizard of Oz. In 1978, he directed and choreographed the lavish Broadway musical Timbuktu! starring Eartha Kitt and earned another Tony nomination for best costumes. His movie career includes roles in 1967’s Doctor Dolittle, portraying Punjab in the 1982 film version of Annie, playing opposite Eddie Murphy in Boomerang (1992) narrating Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), as well as playing the top-hatted voodoo villain Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973). On TV, Holder had roles on Tarzan, voiced the leader on the PBS Kids animated show Cyberchase and pitched 7-Up as “the un-cola” in a commercial in which he wore a white suit and hat, purring “maaarvelous” as he drank the soda.
Holder co-authored and illustrated a collection of Caribbean folklore, Black Gods, Green Islands in 1959, and published a book of recipes, Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook in 1973. Painting was a constant for him. Whether life was hectic or jobs scarce, he could usually be found in his SoHo loft, absorbed in work that drew on folk tales and often delivered biting social commentary. His work was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And then there was his photography, and his sculptures.
Mr. Holder is survived by his wife, the dancer Carmen de Lavallade and their son, Leo.
Source(s): CNN, Legacy; The New York Times. Photo Source(s): Americantheatre.org; Masterworks Broadway; Jamesbond.wikia.com; tvmediainsights.com.