Quiet, soft-spoken Beah Richards had a long and distinguished theater, film, and television career that began in the 1950s. Although critics noted her talents as wide-ranging and extraordinary, she was not considered a Hollywood beauty like Lena Home or Dorothy Dandridge. Consequently, she was generally cast as the strong, reliable woman of the house. Richards herself once said, as quoted in Jet, that she had “played everybody’s mother.” And in fact, it was the role of Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Beah Richards grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She was born on July 12, 1926, to Wesley and Beulah Richardson. Her father was a minister and her mother was a seamstress. Even at a young age, people said she was destined for the theater. At the time, such a career seemed very far away. Vicksburg did not have a theater then, and if it did have one, blacks would not have been allowed. Richards grew up in an environment of racial hostility. She was not allowed to check books out of the public library and, while on her way to school, she had even been stoned by white children.
Richards attended Dillard University in New Orleans. It was there that acting became a reality for her. She moved on to San Diego, California, where she joined a regional theater troupe. Studying dance and drama at the Old Globe Theatre, she played in such productions as The Little Foxes.
In 1950 Richards moved to New York City. Occasionally getting small parts, she supported herself by becoming an instructor in a charm school. Then Richards landed a role in the 1954 off-Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. In 1958 she began the Harlem Community Theatre along with 19 other actors, including Godfrey Cambridge. In 1959 she played in The Miracle Worker and was the understudy for Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, going on the national tour in the role of Leah Younger. She also played in Purlie Victorious in 1961.
James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, produced by Maria Cole, Nat King Cole’s widow, and with Frank Silvera as star and director, opened in New York City in 1965. Richards was Silvera’s costar, playing Sister Margaret. Although critics were lukewarm to the play, which ran just 12 weeks, her performance was highly touted by all. She received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Theatre World Award.
The year 1967 was very busy for Richards in Hollywood. She played Mammy Rose in Hurry Sundown. Once again, the production, with Jane Fonda and Michael Caine, received lukewarm reviews. But Richards was highly praised for her compelling performance. Also that year, she played in In the Heat of the Night, which won Best Picture, Oscar.
However, the year brought Richards the most attention for a movie that received so-so reviews but gave Katharine Hepburn the Best Actress Oscar. It was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Hepburn, with Spencer Tracy, plays socialite white parents who learn that their daughter is about to marry a well-educated, intelligent black man, played by Sidney Poitier, who also starred in In the Heat of the Night. Hepburn and Tracy are perplexed and not particularly thrilled with the idea of this mixed marriage, but then neither are Poitier’s parents, the mother played by Beah Richards, in all her dignified, quiet glory. Richards was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Richards’s other film credits included: The Great White Hope (1970), The Biscuit Eater (1972), Mahogany (1975), Inside Out (1987), Big Shots (1987), and Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Her last film was 1998’s Beloved, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Besides the stage and films, Richards had a distinguished career in television. She was seen on Sanford and Son, Hill St. Blues, L.A. Law, Highway to Heaven, and Designing Women, as well as in a recurring role on ER. She also appeared in the miniseries, Roots: The Next Generation. She was singled out for her performance in a short-lived series called Frank’s Place, a gentle show set in New Orleans. Richards won an Emmy for her role.
Beah Richards was not only a talented stage, screen, and television performer. In addition, she was a playwright and a poet. Her first of three plays was All’s Well That Ends, which deals with segregation. The second, One Is a Crowd, was produced in Los Angeles in 1971. She played the lead role in this three-act drama about a black singer who seeks revenge against a white man who has destroyed her family. In 1979 she presented her one-woman show, An Evening with Beah Richards.
She also published poetry. A Black Woman Speaks (1974) is a collection of 14 poems. In the preface, she spoke of the need to “see how it is that blacks and whites agree so little culturally.” Her views on the impact of a segregated society and on the prejudices against women are clear in her verse. She speaks to white women, urging them to remember “history,” and she cites women of both races as victims of white supremacists.
Richards was voted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1974. She has directed plays, including Piano Bar at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center from 1986 to 1987, and television shows. She also taught courses on the theater at the university level.
Most of her friends and fellow performers felt that Richards never received the recognition that she was due, partly because of the standards of the time and the roles into which she was cast. Richards rarely complained but went about her life giving the best of herself in any performance. However, in 1973 she spoke at a Boston University conference on “Black Images in Film: Stereotyping and Self-Perception as Viewed by Black Actresses.” Commenting that the best attack against stereotyping is simply not going to those films.
Beah Richards, who was briefly married to Hugh Harrell in the 1960s, died in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on September 14, 2000. She had been suffering from emphysema for some time. Four days earlier, she had won an Emmy for her guest appearance as a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease on ABC’s The Practice. Because she had been too ill to attend the ceremony, the costar of the series, Lisa Gay Hamilton, went to Vicksburg to give Richards her award. Hamilton told Entertainment Weekly, “I think Beah’s favorite role was being a free spirit. Without question, she was hurt…. But she died without regrets.”