Beah Richards, a veteran stage performer and character actor whose best work included her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and who won an Emmy this week for a guest role in ABC’s “The Practice,” has died.
Richards, who lived in Los Angeles for many years and recently returned to her hometown of Vicksburg, Miss., died there Thursday of emphysema. She was 74.
Too ill to receive her Emmy at the ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday night, Richards was presented with the award Sept. 1 in Vicksburg by Lisa Gay Hamilton, one of the co-stars of “The Practice.”
Richards was recognized for a moving portrayal of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient whose daughter was trying to end her new marriage. She also won an Emmy in 1987 for a guest role in the CBS series “Frank’s Place.”
The daughter of a minister, Richards discovered a passion for acting while she was a student at New Orleans’ Dillard University. Her parents encouraged her by sending her to study at the Globe Theatre in San Diego, where she was an apprentice for three years in the late 1940s.
In 1951, she moved to New York to launch an acting career. By 1956, she had made her off-Broadway debut as a grandmother in a production of “Take a Giant Step,” a play by Louis S. Peterson about a black teenager’s struggles in a white world. She made her film debut three years later, when she was cast in the screen adaptation of the play.
She was often cast as a mother or grandmother because of her kindly face. She was Robert Hooks’ white-haired mother in director Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” in 1967. In 1998, she played Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law of the Oprah Winfrey character, Sethe, in “Beloved.” On television, she succeeded Lillian Randolph as Bill Cosby’s mother during the 1970-71 season of “The Bill Cosby Show.”
Other notable performances include the role of Sister Margaret in a New York production of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner” in 1965 and the role of Viney in the Broadway production of “The Miracle Worker” in 1959. She reprised the latter role in the movie released in 1962.
Richards had guest spots on many television series, including “L.A. Law,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Highway to Heaven” and “Designing Women.” She recently held a recurring role in the acclaimed NBC series “ER.”
Poitier also worked with Richards in the 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night,” in which she played an abortionist. He called Richards a remarkable actress.
“One of the things that characterizes the standout actors among us all, " Poitier said Friday, “is [range] and her range was such that it accommodated theater, film, television, the lecture stage. She had that power to impact in all of those areas.
“I don’t think there is an actor who ever worked with her who wasn’t fed by her energy. When you work with an actor who penetrates your creative space and penetrates in a positive way, bringing new energy on which you can feed, then of course that actor has to be considered special.”
Richards was also a poet and playwright. During the 1970s she appeared in three of her own plays--"A Black Woman Speaks,” based on a book of her poetry by the same title, and “One Is a Crowd.” She wrote and starred in a one-woman show, “An Evening with Beah Richards,” in 1979.
Former Times drama critic Sylvie Drake, in a 1974 review of “A Black Woman Speaks” at the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles, glowingly described her as “more phenomenon than actress.” Calling her a writer with an arresting voice, Drake wrote: “This black woman is still deeply angry, vaultingly proud and wears her white-inflicted wounds on her sleeve--or graceful arm, as the case may be. . . . This woman’s fury is bathed in decent venom.”
Richards is survived by two nieces, Sherry Green-Fisher and Rosemary Spears; two nephews, Harold McWarde and James L.W. Green; a stepsister; three great-nephews; and a great-niece.
Memorial donations may be made to Theater of Hearts/Youth First, 40 S. Lafayette Park Place, Suite 307, Los Angeles, CA 90057; the Museum and Marketplace, 392 Fisher Ferry Road, Vicksburg, MS 39180; or St. Marks Freewill Baptist Church, 2600 Hannah Ave., Vicksburg, MS 39180.
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.