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Mary Alice, Tony Winner for Her Role in ‘Fences,’ Dies at 85


Mary Alice, an Emmy- and Tony-award winning actress who brought a fragile grace and a quiet dignity to her roles in Hollywood blockbusters (“The Matrix Revolutions”), television sitcoms (“A Different World”) and Broadway plays (“Fences”), died on Wednesday in her home in Manhattan. She was 85, in accordance with the Recent York City Police Department.

The death was confirmed by Detective Anthony Passaro, a police spokesman, who said officers responded to a 911 call and located Ms. Alice unresponsive.

A former Chicago schoolteacher, Ms. Alice appeared in nearly 60 television shows and movies. In 2000, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

She first gained widespread attention within the Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 1987. She earned a Tony Award for best featured actress for taking part in Rose Maxson, a housewife in Nineteen Fifties Pittsburgh forced to balance duty with anger toward a philandering husband (played by James Earl Jones, who also won a Tony), who’s crammed with rage after a promising profession as a baseball player devolved right into a grueling life as a garbage hauler.

“Ms. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness,” Frank Wealthy wrote in a review for The Recent York Times. “The actress finds the spiritual quotient within the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a scarred, profoundly complicated man.”

The role had deep resonance for Ms. Alice, who based her performance on memories of her mother, her aunts and her grandmother, women “who weren’t educated, living in a time before women’s liberation, and their identities were tied up of their husbands,” she said in an interview with The Times that very same yr.

“I made a decision very early that I didn’t want — well, not a lot that I didn’t need to get married, but that I did want to search out out concerning the world,” she added. “I did that through college, through learning, through books and travel.”

Mary Alice Smith was born on Dec. 3, 1936, in Indianola, Miss., one in every of three children of Sam Smith and Ozelar (Jurnakin) Smith. When she was a small child, the family moved to Chicago, where they lived in a house on the Near North Side that was later demolished to make way for the Cabrini-Green housing project.

No immediate members of the family survive.

Viewing teaching as a path to a stable, middle-class life, she graduated from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) in 1965 and took a job teaching at a public elementary school.

Even so, she aspired to be an actress. “It was escapism,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1986, adding: “We never lacked for anything. But my parents got up before the sun rose and worked all day. My father was drained. My mother needed to cook. Once I went to the flicks, those people on the screen didn’t should work.”

Dropping the surname “Smith” and moving to Recent York City in 1967, Ms. Alice trained on the Negro Ensemble Company, landing in a sophisticated acting class taught by Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater who went on to direct “Fences.”

Throughout the Seventies and the early ’80s, she made quite a few appearances in sitcoms like “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son,” while carving out a movie presence in “Sparkle,” a 1976 musical loosely based on The Supremes, and “Beat Street,” the 1984 break-dancing film that helped nudge hip-hop culture into the mainstream.

She earned praise onstage in a 1980 Off Broadway production of “Zooman and the Sign,” featuring Frances Foster and Giancarlo Esposito, in addition to a 1983 Yale Rep production of “Raisin within the Sun,” featuring Delroy Lindo.

After her success with “Fences,” she played Lettie Bostic, a resident director at a historically Black college who has an intriguing past, in “A Different World,” a derivative of “The Cosby Show.” A yr after that, she drew praise because the mother of Oprah Winfrey’s matriarch character in “The Women of Brewster Place,” a television mini-series based on the Gloria Naylor novel a couple of group of girls living in a run-down housing project.

By the Nineteen Nineties, she had turn into a well-known face in film. She had roles in Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” featuring Danny Glover, and in Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” featuring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, in 1990; and in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” with Denzel Washington within the title role, two years later.

She also appeared in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” because the mother of an adolescent struck by a automotive in a hit-and-run accident.

In 1992, she was nominated for an Emmy award for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series for her role in “I’ll Fly Away,” a series starring Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor and set in a fictional Southern town within the Nineteen Fifties; she won the award for a similar role the next yr.

Ms. Alice nearly took home one other Tony in 1995. She was nominated for best actress for her performance because the fiery Bessie, one in every of two centenarian sisters looking back on a century of life, in “Having Our Say,” Emily Mann’s Broadway adaptation of the best-selling 1994 memoir by Sarah (Sadie) L. Delany and her sister Annie Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, written with Amy Hill Hearth.

Ms. Alice replaced Gloria Foster because the Oracle within the third installment of the Matrix film series in 2003, and continued acting until 2005, when she appeared in a television reboot of the Seventies detective show “Kojak.”

“Acting has been an enormous sacrifice,” she told The Tribune in 1986. “I sometimes think that if I had continued to be a teacher, I could be retired already. The income would have been constant. But I didn’t feel about teaching the way in which I do about acting. It’s my service in life. I’m imagined to use it.”

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