A stage and TV actress with some feature credits, Mary Alice is known for playing women of quiet dignity and strength and for her eyes which speak a thousand words. TV viewers have known her as Fred Sanford's nemesis sister-in-law on episodes of "Sanford and Son" (NBC, 1975), and as the housemother with a past on "A Different World" (NBC, 1988-89). But anyone who has seen her playing wife of James Earl Jones and mother to Courtney Vance in her Tony-winning role in "Fences" (1987; also on tour) or as the sassy sister in "Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years" (1995) on Broadway knows that Alice is a resource never properly cultivated by Hollywood.
Born Mary Alice Smith, she began her working life as a teacher in her native Chicago. She had a yen to act and began her career on stage in her hometown. Eventually, Alice headed to NYC in the mid-60s where she studied with Lloyd Richards--who would later direct her in August Wilson's "Fences"--before finding roles with the Negro Ensemble Company. She made her Off-Broadway debut in "Trials of Jero" and "The Strong Breed" in 1967 and her Broadway debut as Cora in "No Place to Be Somebody" (1971).
It was not until 1974 that Alice made her feature film debut in "The Education of Sonny Carson" as "Moms" to the title character. She was again a suffering ghetto mother, this time to three girls with show business aspirations, in the well-received "Sparkle" (1976). But it was not until 1984 that Alice returned to the big screen in "Beat Street" and "Teachers," both in supporting roles. She had her best screen opportunity in "To Sleep With Anger" (1990), playing wife and mother in the family to which Danny Glover tries his tricks. That same year, Alice was one of the nurses working alongside Robin Williams on his experiments reviving catatonic patients in "Awakenings." She returned to her roots as a schoolteacher, playing one in a cameo in "Malcolm X" (1992). In 1994, Alice was barely used as the grandmother to Larenz Tate in "The Inkwell." In fact, in her meatiest scene, Alice did most of her talking from the background and in soft focus.
The actress continued to work steadily in film and telepics, speciazlizing in matriarchs among the ensemble casts of projects featuring African American families. Among her best roles was 1998's "Down in the Delta," directed by renowned poet Maya Angelou, Alice played a strong mother who sends her drug-addicted daughter (Alfre Woodard) and her grandchildren away from the big city to rebuild their lives; Alice reunited with Woodard for "The Wishing Tree" (1999). She also had the lead in "The Life" (2002) playing a new York widow who dies and, thanks to a Heavenly clerical mishap, gets the chance to live a new life in the body of a recently deceased young woman. The actress had another strong supporting turn in writer-director John Sayles' pleasing multi-charactrer "Sunshine State" (2002) as a Floridan mother who faces a thorny reunion with her long estranged daughter (Angela Bassett). She then joined the cast of "The Matrix Revolutions" (2003) when she assumed the role of the digital world's precient soothsayer, The Oracle (originally played by Gloria Foster, who died in the midst of production).
Alice's TV career has been highly active. Reportedly, she made her TV debut in "The Sty of the Blind Pig" (PBS, 1974), and later appeared for a time as a secretary on the CBS soap opera "The Edge of Night." Alice's TV work was sporadic in the 70s until a supporting role in the TV-movie "Just and Old Sweet Song" (CBS, 1976). After her year on "A Different World," in which her character didn't seem to click, Alice nevertheless had a broader TV profile, generally in maternal roles. She played mother to Oprah Winfrey in the first act of "The Women of Brewster Place" (ABC, 1989) and won an Emmy for as the parent of a murdered Southern youth in episodes of "I'll Fly Away" (NBC, 1992). That same year, she also appeared in a cycle of "L.A. Law" episodes as the mother of a crack addict and was the matriarch of the family in the HBO drama "Laurel Avenue" (1993). Alice also played the wife of one of the first Civil Rights leaders in "The Vernon Johns Story" (syndicated, 1994) and could be seen on the short-lived 1997 CBS series "Orleans." Following a brief recurring stint in 1999 on Bill Cosby's lesser TV hit "Cosby" on CBS, the actress joined the cast of HBO's hard-edged prison series "Oz" for the 2002 season as Eugenia Hill, playing mother to her future "Matrix Revolutions" co-star Harold Perrineu, Jr.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Moved to New York and trained for the stage with Lloyd Richards at the Negro Ensemble Company
Made Off-Broadway debut in "Trials of Jero" and "The Strong Breed"
Broadway debut, "No Place to Be Somebody"
Film debut, "The Education of Sonny Carson"
TV debut, "The Sty of the Blind Pit" on PBS' "Hollywood Television Theatre"
Appeared in memorable episode of "Sanford and Son" as Fred's sister-in-law
Made TV-movie debut in "Just an Old Sweet Song" (CBS)
Performed in Australian production of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf"
Starred on Broadway and on tour in "Fences"; won Tony Award
Was regular on the NBC sitcom "A Different World"
Played mother to Oprah Winfrey in miniseries "The Women of Brewster Place" (ABC)
Starred in film "To Sleep With Anger"
Played memorable role on "I'll Fly Away" (NBC)
Starred in HBO limited series "Laurel Avenue"
Starred on Broadway in "Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years"
Co-starred as the adoptive mother of a pair of Vietnamese orphans in "Catfish and Black Bean Sauce"