Juanita Moore, a pioneering African American actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the classic 1959 drama “Imitation of Life,” has died.
The Associated Press reports that Moore collapsed and died at her Los Angeles home Wednesday. Although accounts of the actress’ age have differed over the years, her step-grandson, Kirk Kahn, told Variety that she was 99.
Moore received her Oscar nomination portraying Lana Turner’s best friend and confidant, a housekeeper whose daughter passes for white, in director Douglas Sirk’s hit “Imitation of Life.” The film is a subversive masterwork of socially conscious cinema that gained a cultish popularity in later years.
In the process, Moore became only the fifth African American ever to receive an Academy Award nomination, a rare honor in a racially divided era when actors of color seldom claimed rewarding roles.
As Moore told the Los Angeles Times in 1967, her Oscar pedigree carried a mixed blessing.
“The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated,” Moore said. “Casting directors think an Oscar nominee is suddenly in another category. They couldn’t possibly ask you to do one or two days’ work. You wouldn’t accept it. And I’m sure I would.”
A native of Los Angeles, Moore started out performing in the chorus at New York’s Cotton Club but soon became active in theater, appearing at Los Angeles’ Ebony Showcase Theater in the ‘50s. She performed in a London stage production of “A Raisin in the Sun” and on Broadway in 1966 in James Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner.”
After inhabiting mostly small roles as servants in ‘50s movies, Moore went on to appear in supporting roles in an eclectic roster of films such as “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “The Singing Nun” and “The Mack.”
Moore's husband, Charles Burris, a former bus driver, died in 2001, according to the book “Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life.” She is survived by Kahn and two nephews.
[For the Record, Jan. 2, 2014, 9:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave Charles Burris' name as Charles Burns.]