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Obituary : Claudia McNeil; ‘Raisin in the Sun’ Actress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Claudia McNeil, a character actress best known for her stage and screen role as Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Raisin in the Sun,” has died. She was 77.

Miss McNeil died Thursday in the Actors Fund Nursing Home in Englewood, N.J., of complications of diabetes. She had lived in the home for nine years.

“When I saw that face, I knew that we’d found the mother for my play,” said Lorraine Hansberry, author of ‘Raisin'--about a struggling black family on Chicago’s South Side--after she cast Miss McNeil.

“When Claudia walked in with her mink coat, her black hair, her nightclub sophistication to read for her part, people looked at me like I was crazy,” the writer said. “Then she read a speech--and they knew it was right; she is the mother.”

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Miss McNeil’s expressive face spoke volumes to Poitier’s wordy son in the play that captivated Broadway in 1959, toured the country including Los Angeles’ Huntington Hartford Theater in 1960, and was made into a film released by Columbia in 1961.

“This making movies,” she told The Times when she came to Hollywood to do the filming in 1960, “this isn’t working--this is a paid vacation.”

Miss McNeil was born in Baltimore, the daughter of a black father and an Apache mother who gave her up for adoption because they were too poor to support her. She was raised as a Catholic by Jewish adoptive parents in New York.

At 12, she began her career as a singer and dancer in 1930s cabarets and supper clubs.

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“Nowadays,” she told the Manchester Guardian in 1965 at the start of the civil rights movement, “everyone’s rushing around fussing about civil rights and heaven knows what. In those days we were working together for America--together. Nobody cared about class or color or anything else--we were all in it together.”

She made the comments during an appearance in London in James Baldwin’s forceful play, “The Amen Corner.” She also performed the work in Tel Aviv, noting that she wished her Jewish foster parents could share in the standing ovation she received there.

Miss McNeil’s handful of other films included “The Last Angry Man,” “There Was a Crooked Man” and “Black Girl.” Better known as a stage actress, she saw nothing difficult in her conversion to acting.

She said that after more than 20 years as a singer, she felt her career waning as she approached 40, so she studied acting. Off-Broadway roles followed.

“It’s an easy changeover from singing to acting,” she once told The Times. “If you’re any good at singing, you sell the words of the song--and you’ve got to act to do it. That is, the songs I sang back when the words made sense--songs like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ ”

But she carried her nightclub style to the theater--including wearing the mink coat to auditions.

“Wear a mink coat,” she told The Times in 1960, “and you never need a psychiatrist. When I put it on I feel like Lana Turner.”

Widowed once and divorced once, Miss McNeil had one child, a son who was killed in the Korean War.

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