Maya Angelou’s TV legacy, from ‘Roots’ to ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Super Soul’
Though Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, was best known for her contributions to literature, she was a true renaissance woman who left a considerable small-screen legacy as a writer, performer, narrator and media personality.
In 1993, Angelou was beamed into the homes of millions when she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to recite at an inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961.
Still more viewers were introduced to Angelou’s work through her decades-long friendship with talk show host and media titan Oprah Winfrey, who has described the author as “the greatest mentor I have ever known” and said the experience of reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was “like meeting myself in full.”
Angelou’s autobiographical volume “The Heart of a Woman” was an early selection of Winfrey’s hugely influential book club, and Angelou made numerous appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” over its 25-year run, even paying a surprise visit to her “Farewell Spectacular” to read a poem about Winfrey’s life. Angelou also sat for a two-part interview with Winfrey on the OWN program “Super Soul Sunday” last year.
“She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life,” said Winfrey in a statement released Wednesday. “She won three Grammys, spoke six languages and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”
Over the course of her lengthy and multifaceted career, Angelou also wrote many projects for television. She adapted what may be her best known work, her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” into a 1979 television movie starring Diahann Carroll and Esther Rolle. Other writing credits include “Sister, Sister,” a 1982 TV movie, and “How Do You Spell God?,” an animated children’s special for HBO in 1996.
As an authoritative voice on African American culture, she lent her expertise to an array of television documentaries and nonfiction programming, including Henry Louis Gates’ miniseries “African American Lives 2”; the Sundance series “Iconoclasts,” in which she spoke with comedian Dave Chappelle; PBS’ “American Masters”; and the ESPN “30 for 30” film “One Night in Vegas.” She also narrated the documentary “The Black Candle,” about Kwanzaa, which aired on Starz in 2012.
For such an esteemed intellectual, Angelou was also unafraid to show her more playful side, appearing several times on “Sesame Street” over the years, singing with Elmo and introducing the letter “N” with Baby Natasha. (The show thanked Angelou “for all the hugs” in a tweet Wednesday.)
Angelou, who appeared in an uncredited role as a dancer in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess,” even dabbled in acting. She starred as Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in the grounbdreaking ABC miniseries “Roots” in 1977 and appeared along with Winfrey in “There Are No Children Here,” a 1993 TV movie based on the acclaimed nonfiction book about a family in a Chicago housing project. She also had a guest role in the CBS series “Touched by an Angel” and starred in “The Runaway,” a TV movie with Dean Cain.
She even tried her hand at directing with the feature film “Down in the Delta,” with Alfre Woodard, released in 1998.
Her death prompted reactions from many in the television industry on Wednesday.
In a statement, BET Networks Chairman and Chief Executive Debra L. Lee said, “We are saddened to learn about the death of Maya Angelou today. Her light will always shine through her extraordinary contributions to the arts and to the very fabric of American culture. She was an icon in literature, an influential voice in civil rights, and an innovator throughout her life.”
Writer-director-producer Tyler Perry also praised Angelou, saying, “Her words and her spirit are too powerful to leave this earth with her passing. Her legacy and poems will take wings, forever landing at the foundation of anything that betters humanity. Dr. Maya Angelou will live on in all of us who called her a phenomenal woman, phenomenally.”
Still more celebrities expressed their condolences via social media. On Twitter, “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts wrote that she was “saddened by the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou. Grateful for all she taught us with her words & spirit. Will never forget how she made me feel.
In a series of tweets, “Girls” creator Lena Dunham praised Angelou as a “rock star,” said her power, politics and poetry were needed “more than ever,” and quoted from one of Angelou’s best-known poems, “Phenomenal Woman”: “It’s the fire in my eyes/And the flash of my teeth/The swing in my waist/And the joy in my feet/I’m a woman/Phenomenally...”
“Scandal” actress Kerry Washington also used Angelou’s own words as tribute, paraphrasing a line from the poem “Still I Rise”: “But still, like air, she rises. Yes Ma’am. Rise. Rise. Rise. #MayaAngelou.”
On Facebook, “The Trip to Bountiful’s” Blair Underwood called Angelou a “brilliant poet, author, humanitarian” who will “be sorely missed.”
Others were more succint in their grief. “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” show runner Shonda Rhimes tweeted simply, “Maya.”
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