Mary Alice, Tony Winner for Her Role in ‘Fences,’ Dies at 85
Mary Alice, an Emmy- and Tony-award winning actress who brought a delicate grace and a quiet dignity to her roles in Hollywood blockbusters (“The Matrix Revolutions”), television sitcoms (“A Different World”) and Broadway plays (“Fences”) ”), died on Wednesday in her home in Manhattan. She was 85, according to the New York City 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 is unresponsive.
A former Chicago schoolteacher, Ms. Alice appeared in nearly 60 television shows and films. In 2000, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
She first gained widespread attention in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 1987. She earned a Tony Award for best featured actress for playing Rose Maxson, a housewife in 1950s Pittsburgh forced to balance duty with anger toward a philandering husband (played by James Earl Jones, who also won a Tony), who is filled with rage after a promising career as a baseball player devolved 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. “The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a scarred, profoundly complicated man.”
The role had deep resonance for Ms. Alice, who based her performance on memories of her mother, her aunts and her grandmother, women “who were not educated, living in a time before women’s liberation, and their identities were tied up in their husbands,” she said in an interview with The Times that same year.
“I decided very early that I did not want — well, not so much that I did not want to get married, but that I did want to find out about the world,” she added. “I did that through college, through learning, through books and travel.”
Mary Alice Smith was born on Dec. 3, 1936, in Indianola, Miss., one of three children of Sam Smith and Ozelar (Jurnakin) Smith. When she was a small child, 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.
Viewing 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.
Even so, she aspired to be an actress. “It was escapism,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1986, adding: “We never lacked for anything. But my parents got up before the sun rose and worked all day. My father was tired. My mother 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 City in 1967, Ms. Alice trained at the Negro Ensemble Company, landing in an advanced acting class taught by Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater who went on to direct “Fences.”
Throughout the 1970s and the early ’80s, she made numerous appearances in sitcoms like “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son,” while carving out a film presence in “Sparkle,” a 1976 musical loosely based on The Supremes, and “Beat Street,” the 1984 break-dancing film that helped nudge hip-hop culture into the mainstream.
She earned praise onstage in a 1980 Off Broadway production of “Zooman and the Sign,” featuring Frances Foster and Giancarlo Esposito, as well as a 1983 Yale Rep production of “Raisin in the Sun,” featuring Delroy Lindo.
After her success with “Fences,” she played Lettie Bostic, a resident director at a historically Black college who has an intriguing past, in “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show.” A year after that, she drew praise as the mother of Oprah Winfrey’s matriarch character in “The Women of Brewster Place,” a television mini-series based on the Gloria Naylor novel about a group of women living in a run-down housing project.
By the 1990s, she had become a familiar face in film. She had roles in Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” featuring Danny Glover, and in Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” featuring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, in 1990; and in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” with Denzel Washington in the title role, two years later.
She also appeared in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as the mother of a teenager struck 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 Southern town in the 1950s; she won the award for the same role the following year.
Ms. Alice nearly took home another Tony in 1995. She was nominated for best actress for her performance as the fiery Bessie, one of two centenarian sisters looking back on 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 the Oracle in the third installment of the Matrix film series in 2003, and continued acting until 2005, when she appeared in a television reboot of the 1970s detective show “Kojak.”
“Acting has been a big sacrifice,” she told The Tribune in 1986. “I sometimes think that if I had continued to be a teacher, I would be retired already. The income would have been constant. But I didn’t feel about teaching the way I do about acting. It’s my service in life. I’m supposed to use it.”