Mary Alice, Tony Winner for her role in ‘Fences’, dies at 85

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Mary Alice, an Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress who brought delicate grace and quiet dignity to her roles in Hollywood blockbusters (“The Matrix Revolutions”), television sitcoms (“A Different World”) and Broadway plays (“Fences”), died Wednesday at her Manhattan home. She was 85, according to the New York Police Department.

The death was confirmed by Detective Anthony Passaro, a police spokesman, who said officers responded to a 911 call and found Ms Alice unresponsive.

A former Chicago schoolteacher, Ms. Alice has appeared in nearly 60 TV shows and movies. In 2000, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

She first gained attention in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 1987. She won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress for playing Rose Maxson, a housewife in the 1950s in Pittsburgh forced to balance duty with anger at a womanizing husband (played by James Earl Jones, who also won a Tony), who is filled with rage after a promising career as a baseball player turned into a grueling life as a garbage hauler.

“Ms. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness,” Frank Rich wrote in a review for The New York Times. actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a bruised and deeply complicated man.”

The role had a deep resonance for Mrs. Alice, who based her performance on memories of her mother, aunts and grandmother, women “who were uneducated, lived in a time before the liberation of women and whose identity was linked to their husbands”. she said in an interview with The Times the same year.

“I decided early on that I didn’t want to — well, not so much that I didn’t want to get married, but that I wanted to experience the world,” she added. “I did it in college, through learning, through books and traveling.”

Mary Alice Smith was born on December 3, 1936, in Indianola, Mississippi, one of three children born to Sam Smith and Ozelar (Jurnakin) Smith. When she was little, the family moved to Chicago, where they lived in a house on the Near North Side that was later demolished to make way for the Cabrini-Green housing project.

No immediate family members survive.

Seeing teaching as a path to a stable middle-class life, she graduated from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) in 1965 and took a job teaching at a public elementary school.

Despite everything, she aspired to become an actress. “It was escapism,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, adding, “We never wanted for anything. But my parents got up before sunrise and worked all day. day. My dad was tired. My mom had to cook. When I went to the movies, those people on the screen didn’t have to work.

Dropping the surname “Smith” and moving to New York in 1967, Ms. Alice trained at the Negro Ensemble Company, landing in an advanced acting class taught by Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater who later directed “Fences.”

Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, she made numerous guest appearances on sitcoms like “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son,” while also carving out a cinematic presence in “Sparkle,” a musical by 1976 loosely based on The Supremes, and “BeatStreet”, the 1984 breakdancing film that helped bring hip-hop culture into the mainstream.

She received onstage praise in a 1980 Off Broadway production of “Zooman and the Sign”, starring Frances Foster and Giancarlo Esposito, as well as a 1983 Yale Rep production of “Raisin in the Sun”, featuring featured Delroy Lindo.

Following her success with “Fences,” she played Lettie Bostic, resident principal of a historically black college with an intriguing past, in “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show.” A year later, she drew acclaim as the mother of Oprah Winfrey’s character matriarch in “The Women of Brewster Place,” a TV miniseries based on Gloria Naylor’s novel about a group of women living in a dilapidated housing project.

By the 1990s, she had become a familiar face in cinema. She had roles in Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” with Danny Glover, and Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, in 1990; and in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington in the title role, two years later.

She also appeared in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as the mother of a teenager hit by a car in a hit-and-run accident.

In 1992, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her role in “I’ll Fly Away”, a series starring Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor and set in a fictional town from the south in the 1950s; she won the award for the same role the following year.

Mrs. Alice nearly brought home another Tony in 1995. She was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as the feisty Bessie, one of two centenarian sisters looking back over a century of life, in ‘Having Our Say “, Emily Mann’s Broadway adaptation of the best-selling 1994 memoir by Sarah (Sadie) L. Delany and her sister Annie Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, written with Amy Hill Hearth.

Ms. Alice replaced Gloria Foster as Oracle in the third installment of the Matrix film series in 2003 and continued acting until 2005, when she appeared in a TV reboot of the 1970s detective show “Kojak”.

“Acting was a big sacrifice,” she told The Tribune in 1986. “I sometimes think that if I had continued to be a teacher, I would have already retired. The income would have been constant. But I didn’t want to teach like I do to play. It’s my service in life. I’m supposed to use it.

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