Born in Vicksburg, MS, in 1920, actress Beah Richards studied at Dillard University in New Orleans before pursuing an acting career on-stage in New York City. She appeared in Louis S. Peterson's off-Broadway play Take a Giant Step and in the film adaptation in 1959. In 1965, she received a Tony nomination for her role as Sister Margaret in James Baldwin's play The Amen Corner, and two years later she received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as Sidney Poitier's mother in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. She continued playing matriarch characters in the feature films Hurry Sundown, In the Heat of the Night, and The Great White Hope. During the '70s, she took over for Lillian Randolph as Bill Cosby's mother on The Bill Cosby Show, played Aunt Ethel on Sanford and Son, and played several grandmotherly characters in made-for-TV movies. More television appearances followed in the '80s, with recurring roles on Designing Women, Beauty and the Beast, Hill Street Blues, Roots: The Next Generations, and L.A. Law. In 1987, she received her first Emmy award for playing Olive Varden on Frank's Place. She has also directed plays at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center, appeared in her own one-woman show, and published several plays and novels, including the poetry collection A Black Woman Speaks and Other Poems. After playing the substance abuse counselor in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, she made a bit of a comeback as Dr. Benton's (Eriq LaSalle) mother on the NBC medical drama ER and as Grandma Baby in Jonathan Demme's Beloved, based on the novel by Toni Morrison. She received an Emmy for her final television appearance as Gertrude Turner on the ABC drama The Practice. She died of emphysema in 2000.
Biography by Andrea LeVasseur
- Daughter of a seamstress and a Baptist minister.
- Moved to New York in 1950.
- Won her second Emmy Award a few days before her death.
- Was a Civil Rights activist.
- Author of the book Keep Climbing, Girls.