Beah Richards, the African-American actress whose stage career coincided with the great flourishing of black drama in the 1950s and 1960s — leading her to film and TV roles up to the 1999-2000 season, when she won an Emmy Award for “The Practice” — died Sept. 14 in Mississippi.
The cause of death was emphysema, newspapers reported. Ms. Richards’ age was variously reported as 74 and 80.
Ms. Richards attended Dillard University in New Orleans and was an apprentice with The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. She moved to New York and found success playing roles in works by Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Louis Peterson. She understudied the role of Lena Younger in Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun, and played the role 25 years later when Yale Repertory Theatre revived the Hansberry work, about a mother’s wish to move her family out of the slums and into the white suburbs.
She appeared in Broadway’s The Miracle Worker, Purlie Victorious, Off-Broadway’s Take a Giant Step (and its film version) and James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. She also appeared in Mike Nichols’ Lincoln Center Theatre staging of The Little Foxes. Her film role as Sidney Poitier’s mother earned her an Academy Award nomination, and she won her first Emmy Award for appearing in TV’s “Frank’s Place,” in 1988.
Earlier this summer, she won an Emmy for her guest spot on “The Practice.” She was no stranger to playing mother and grandmother roles: Among other matron roles, she was James Earl Jones’ mother in the film, “The Great White Hope,” and Eric LaSalle’s mother in a recurring role on TV’s “E.R.” A poet and playwright, Ms. Richards appeared in three plays she wrote: A Black Woman Speaks, One is a Crowd and An Evening With Beah Richards.
Her film appearances include “Beloved,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Hurry Sundown,” and on TV she was seen in “The Cosby Show” and “Roots: The Next Generation.”
-- By Kenneth Jones